Impressionism in Philadelphia

I recently had the opportunity to visit Philadelphia as part of an independent study at school. My main attraction to this city was the world-renowned impressionist collection at the Barnes Foundation and a traveling exhibit called Discovering the Impressionists at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The visit will inform a contemporary plein-air painting project I will complete this semester. In the meantime, here’s what I saw.


A visit to the Barnes Foundation marked the first stop on my trip. The foundation was far busier than I had anticipated and the lobby and waiting area was bustling with people of all types and ages. I actually had to wait an hour and a half to enter the exhibit. I visited the gift shop in the meantime and found a really neat candle holder that was shaped like a palette topped with candles of various colors.

The arrangement of the artwork on display was unique. Contrasting the sleek, modern architecture and reflecting pool outside, the walls inside were painted warm, inviting colors that made each room feel like part of a home. This is comparable to my experience working at Brandt-Roberts Galleries last year in that the purpose of a gallery is to bring artwork into the homes of clients.

The paintings were hung in a congested salon style, with a few large focal paintings in each room surrounded by dozens of smaller ones. Unlike most museums, there were no cards sharing more information about the pieces and instead the frames were adorned with a small metal tag with the artist’s name. This allowed viewers to truly spend time appreciating the visual treasures on the wall.

I never imagined I would see so many Renoir and Cezanne paintings all in one location. It was a real treat to see such a large body of their work at once. I was able to see patterns in their painting style and compositions. I was thoroughly impressed by the vibrant colors in Cezanne’s work. I think reproductions of his work poorly iterate his true talent.

I was especially impressed by Cezanne’s painting The Card Players. The color palette and subject was unlike the artist’s work that I was familiar with. The general color scheme is limited, but each color is rich with layers of hues that make the piece interesting to me.

I also found it interesting how many times each artist repeated the same or very similar subjects in their paintings. Doing so allows the artist to experiment more freely as they become more familiar with their subject matter. This is something I will keep in mind as I move forward with my project.

I admired the simultaneous complexity and softness of Renoir’s paintings. I think this served as a good reminder to slow down in my paintings to really make marks with meaning and detail. I was also reassured to see both landscapes and portraits in Renoir’s body of work, showing that it is okay to pursue more than one interest.

All the paintings were heightened by their sophisticated treatment of background space. Though it may seem simple and easy to forget, painting the background was clearly an important part of the painting process for the artists in this collection. I also took note of the compositional qualities of the landscape paintings, because I often find myself struggling in this area. In order to prevent the piece from appearing flat, there needs to be some sort of vertical line implied to contrast the strong sense of a flat horizon and to draw the eye further into the painting.


The sheer size of this museum alone is enough to marvel at. From the bottom of the “Rocky” stairs, people entering the museum looked like ants next to the massive pillars adorning the facade.

Tickets for Discovering the Impressionists were timed, so I first browsed through the American Art section. Though not the main attraction, this was easily one of my favorite exhibits. Since I took the Art in America course at Otterbein, I recognized many of the pieces in the show and was able to appreciate their historical context as well.

I was really excited to see the The Staircase Group by Charles Willson Peale. I found it appropriate that this painting be on display in a city with a rich governmental history knowing that Washington is said to have “tipped his hat” at the boys in the painting. The painting intrigues me because it almost feels out of place next to other works of its time. The use of a door frame and step form a bridge to the conceptual art movement that wouldn’t catch on for many years to come.

Thomas Eakins’ work was also notable to me for its massive size. I thought the specifics of the piece would be less clear up-close, but Eakins truly captured every detail of his subjects. The intense and somewhat grotesque imagery of his piece was further made believable by the wincing faces of the people in the paintings. Their expressions brought new life to the work that precise detail alone could not.

The crowd for Discovering the Impressionists was even greater than that at the Barnes Foundation. The collection itself was legendary, though it was difficult to get close to all the paintings through the large swarms of people. Each visitor was given a hand-held listening device to hear the stories behind the paintings and their relationship to Paul Durand-Ruel.

I love how the Impressionists treat color in their work and how they often rely on the optical mixing of colors. I also admire how these painters began capturing what appear to be genuine moments in their work. Rather than looking to mythology and religion for their compositions, they focused on the beauty that physically surrounded them everyday. They had a strong focus on the “here and now.” When we see their paintings, we not only get a taste of their artistic style, but a glimpse into a historical time period. Having been surrounded by many of their works in the exhibit, we can see how people behaved, dressed, decorated and more.


While my project is not based in sculpture, I found that this museum still had a lot to offer. Rodin composed sculptures that were energetic and intriguing. Of course, they are weighty stationary pieces, but they felt full of life and conversation.

I couldn’t have asked for a more invigorating experience to launch the start of this project. I look forward to sharing my process and results soon!

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