A 1795 Sensation Is Back In Town

Posted: July 05, 1987

The nude painting called The Danae and the Shower of Gold, a prime item in the new exhibit that opens today at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, caused a sensation when it first was shown in Philadelphia.

That was in 1795, shortly after its Swedish creator, Adolph-Ulrich Wertmuller, former court painter to Marie Antoinette, took refuge here from the terror of the French Revolution.

Architect Benjamin Latrobe declared: "It is a foolish thing in an artist to chuse a subject which he either dare not exhibit, or if he does expose it, which sacrifices his moral character at the shrine of his Skill."

The painter Charles Willson Peale - who, with his son, Rembrandt Peale, had helped Wertmuller get through U.S. customs - thought it might be all right to show such subjects to other artists, but not to the general public. "I like no art which can raise a blush on a lady's cheek," he said.

Wertmuller was so dismayed at the reactions his painting engendered in strait-laced Philadelphians that he betook himself and The Danae to a farm in Chester County.

"Within a short time, he was besieged by visitors," says Beatrice B. Garvan, the museum's curator of American decorative arts, who conceived and assembled the exhibition. "He got totally sick of people coming to see him. So he brought the painting back to town, rented a little room on Cherry Street and set it up on two sawhorses."

He charged 25 cents admission - and, says Garvan, he made a mint. To avoid bringing blushes to ladies' cheeks, or at least to avoid those blushes being seen by members of the opposite sex, men and women were admitted on separate days. Garvan says she wanted to put up a sign reading, "Men Tuesdays, Women Thursdays" outside the alcove where the painting is being shown at the museum, but couldn't persuade other museum officials.

On loan from the National Museum of Stockholm, the painting is one of an assemblage of 252 paintings, sculptures, costumes and pieces of furniture and silver that make up the exhibition, "Federal Philadelphia, 1785-1825: The Athens of the Western World." The fact that it comes with stories attached is typical of the show as a whole.

The exhibit marks the first time that such a variety of Philadelphia art and artifacts of the Federal period has been gathered in a single showing. But it is not in any sense an overpowering show. Garvan, in fact, calls it ''anecdotal."

"This is not an encyclopedic exhibition telling you everything you wanted to know about Philadelphia," she says. "It's an easy exhibition to see. You don't have to 'get' it."

The museum will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. today. Admission is free on Sundays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Magicians, musicians, jugglers and clowns from Movement Theater International will entertain visitors from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The museum began planning the exhibition about 14 months ago.

"It started," says museum director Anne d'Harnoncourt, "when we thought, 'Gee, this museum has such wonderful things of this period - let's make a show of them.' As Bea Garvan worked with the works of art in our collection and pursued her research in the Federal period, she became increasingly excited about what she found, and the scope of the exhibition expanded in several directions. Now it includes some very important loans from private

collectors and museums in this country and abroad."

Assembling an exhibit like this involves detective work. Garvan went to such original sources as diaries, letters from artists to patrons, account books and city archives to identify the designers, makers and original owners of specific pieces of furniture. For example, she tracked down (and the museum purchased last year) a suite of neoclassical furniture designed by Benjamin Latrobe. A detail from its long, classical sofa adorns the cover of the illustrated catalogue written by Garvan to accompany the exhibition.

In the dusty records of City Hall, Garvan discovered that the furniture had belonged to William Waln, who lived in a beautiful new house at the southeast corner of Ninth and Chestnut Streets. In 1821, Waln went bankrupt and had to sell his house - and the furniture. Garvan had a hard time finding out why.

"Lots of people commented on 'poor Willy Waln,' who had fallen into deep

financial trouble, but nobody said what it was," she said.

"Poor Willy Waln," it turns out, had been involved, with his brother-in- law, in the illicit opium trade with China. The evidence, Garvan believes, points to his having plunged in over his head.

About 60 percent of the works on display in "Federal Philadelphia" come

from the museum's collection, although a number have been in storage. Many items on display have never been seen in Philadelphia. One, a painting of special interest to Philadelphians, was last seen here 150 years ago.

That is French artist Jacques-Louis David's Portrait of Charlotte and Zenaide Bonaparte, lent by the Getty Museum in Malibu, Calif. Probably the most internationally acclaimed painting in the exhibition, it depicts the two girls reading a letter from their father, Joseph, Napoleon's brother, with the word Philadelphie across the top.

"Joseph's wife, Julie, commissioned the painting in Brussels and brought it to America as a present to him in 1822," Garvan notes. "It hasn't been shown in Philadelphia since it left in 1836."

Among other paintings are portraits by Thomas Sully, Gilbert Stuart and Charles Willson Peale, including Peale's celebrated Staircase Group, which is so realistic that George Washington is said to have bowed to its two painted figures when he saw it at an exhibition at the State House (now Independence Hall).

Sculptures include Philadelphia's earliest public sculpture, William Rush's Nymph and Bittern, as well as Rush's busts of Benjamin Franklin and the Marquis de Lafayette. Examples abound of the craftsmen's styles of the period, Greek revival and late Federal being particular favorites. There are eagles on everything from a mahogany bookcase to an enamel brooch.

Garvan has arranged the exhibit to show off in dramatic fashion the way people lived in Philadelphia around the turn of the 18th century. The new republic's first capital was also its most populated and most sophisticated city - close to becoming, in Latrobe's rosy forecast, "the Athens of the Western World."

Visitors will enter the exhibit along what appears to be a shopping street, where furniture and other objects are arranged as if on display. After that, the exhibit is set up in five groups, each with a different theme.

The first group, called "The Republican Court," displays the salons and drawing rooms of George Washington's time, presided over by such noted hostesses as Maria Donath Koecker, May Wrench Rush and Frances Cadwalader Erskine. The second is called "Vive la France" and deals with the cultural and political influence on Philadelphia of the aristocratic exiles from the French Revolution - and, after the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon's brother Joseph and his entourage. Among works on display here are David's Charlotte and Zenaide and the balcony railings from Stephen Girard's counting house.

The third group, "The Athens of the Western World," consists of furniture, silver, costumes, embroidery, paintings and two period rooms - one an elegant neoclassical room from a house on Third Street, the other containing "poor Willy Waln's" Latrobe-designed furniture, on public display for the first time.

The fourth group, "A Moment in the Arts," includes The Danae, placed against a background of the kind of green baize curtains that Wertmuller used in the Cherry Street house he rented. The fifth group, "A Sense of Style," displays period furniture, costumes, mantelpieces and eight silver tea sets arranged chronologically to show changing styles of the period.

The exhibition, which closes Sept.20, fits very well into this year's constitutional bicentennial celebration, says d'Harnoncourt. The period between 1785 and 1825 was an exciting period in politics, she notes, and ''we're trying to make people aware of how very lively and exciting the Federal period was in the arts."

IBM provided major funding for the exhibition; additional support came from the Pew Memorial Trust, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

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