On my first trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I did what many first-time visitors do — I ran up the 72 Kasota limestone steps to the terrace of the museum’s Parthenon-like east entrance, just like Sylvester Stallone in his famous fight-training scene from Rocky. But unless you’ve got his stamina, I’d advise against it. You’re going to need all your energy inside.
The museum is one of the largest in the United States: 240,000 square feet housing more than 225,000 works in a maze of galleries that require a map to navigate. Spend an entire day there and you still may not make it through the place, let alone get a good look at all the treasures it houses.
Those with only a couple of hours to spare have the agonizing decision of where to allocate their time. American, Asian or contemporary art? (Each genre occupies an entire wing in the massive museum.) One of the four wings devoted to European art? The galleries full of armor and weaponry?
Or perhaps you’d
if you go
Philadelphia Museum of Art Benjamin Franklin Parkway (at 26th Street) (215) 763-8100 philamuseum.org
Rodin Museum Benjamin Franklin Parkway (at 22nd Street) (215) 568-6026 rodinmuseum.org
like to check out the Ruth and Raymond G. Perelman Building across the street. The 30,000-square-foot annex, which opened in 2007, displays costumes and textiles, prints, drawings, photographs and exhibits on modern and contemporary design.
I began my afternoon in one of the two wings housing 16th- through 19th-century European art in what remains my favorite gallery: a grand salon featuring intricately carved and gilded pale green walls and immense mirrored panels, still intact, taken from an 18th-century chateau just south of Paris. Walking through the 17 period rooms in this wing (16 more are scattered throughout the museum) is like strolling through time and space. Created with woodwork and plasterwork salvaged from demolished or remodeled structures and furnished in the style of the day, standouts include the lavish drawing room of a 1923 townhouse on Fifth Avenue in New York City, complete with its 18th-century French furnishings as well as the cream-colored Palladian-style front parlor from the Philadelphia home where George and Martha Washington celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary.
The galleries in this wing display dramatic works such as Peter Paul Rubens’ Prometheus Bound and Francesco de la Rosa’s Massacre of the Innocents.
Iconic works by the world’s most famous artists are in the wing directly below, bringing my late 19th-century European art history textbook to life. I rested on a bench by a circular fountain in the Resnick Rotunda to admire Claude Monet’s Japanese Footbridge and the Water Lily Pool, displayed alongside masterpieces such as Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. The multitude of reproductions that have made these works household images can never do justice to the sense of awe that comes from seeing the real thing.
But if it’s sculpture you want, a life-sized version of Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker, considered by some to be the most famous sculpture of all time, can be found in front of the nearby Rodin Museum. This little gem boasts the largest collection of Rodin works outside of Paris, including The Gates of Hell, a towering set of bronze doors ornamented with tormented nudes, installed outside the entrance to the building. Just steps from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, it’s definitely worth seeing.