Philadelphia. It’s always had a peculiar character about it; an aristocracy of old families, Quaker in conscience if not in religion or taste…
“Philadelphia,” wrote George Biddle in his autobiography, ” has its own breed of integrity. It believes in itself, although there is nothing much any longer worth believing in. It respects its own standards, although these standards are inconceivably shallow and antedate in great measure the birth of our nation. It has the logic and courage to love what it likes, and to mistrust or to dislike anything worth achieving- anything as a rule that is not Philadelphian.”
Biddle spike for a long line of artists who found the city stifling to talent. Yet it certainly has a long and honorable, if curious aesthetic history; as long and honorable as any town of its age in the world; curious in that only one creative artist, Eakins, is generally acknowledged, in America at least, to be first rate. Yet many others have achieved some renown; the Peales and Eakins, Wyeth formed an unbroken chain of talent at home; while Benjamin West, Leslie, Singer Sargent, Cassatt, and Biddle among others, formed a tradition in exile.
The persistence of this artistic tradition is the direct result of the oligarchy’s somewhat condescending patronage of the Muses. It was a world of letters, painting, and music supported, created, and maintained largely by Old Philadelphians, with vital help from the German and jewish bourgeoisie, that made it possible for artists to exist in Philadelphia at all. Painting was the art that flourished best and longest there.
The great tradition begins with two very different contemporaries Benjamin West ( 1732-1820) and Charles Willson Peale ( 1741-1827). Between them they symbolized pretty neatly the two poles, the double bias of Philadelphian, and indeed American, culture: one the sssentially colonial tradition looking to Europe for values and approval, even to the extent of expatriation, the other the native tradition, firmly rooted in Philadelphia itself. These two viewpoints culminate in John Singer Sargent and Thomas Eakins.
Peale, who stayed at home, was one of those crotchety, curious minded, many faceted individualists that Philadelphia seems to have nursed so willingly in its great days and so grudgingly later on. The great hobby and profession of his vigorous old age was his museum, containing portraits of Revolutionary heroes and stuffed animals, for which he rented the second floor of Independence Hall.
Peale’s greatest coup was the excavation and assembly of the skeleton of two prehistoric mastodons. At eighty-one he painted a fine full length picture of himself lifting a curtain to disclose the wonders of his museum, mastodons and all.