This weekend I took a little tour into Emaline’s world. It wasn’t intentional. It just happened. It was a beautiful May morning and I was at Fairmount Park to watch the Dad Vail Regatta, but there it was; presiding over the city at the top of the Rocky stairs was the grand Greek Revival repository for one of the largest and most significant collections of art in the United States. I hadn’t been to The Philadelphia Museum of Art in many years.
The shady sculpture gardens along the Schuylkill River lead to the busy Boathouse Row where joggers, bikers, and skaters call out “left!” so unsuspecting and distracted pedestrians like myself will move over. But I’m busy snapping pictures of cherry blossoms and rowers on the water, so after about a dozen near misses, I find myself meandering through the Museum gardens between races. There’s a wedding underway in one of the outdoor pavilions and I smile as the bride snags a passing jogger and gets him to pose with her for the photographer.
The museum conveniently offers a two-day pass, and as long as I wear the bright green tin pin they give me, I can come and go as I wish. I like my pin and attach it prominently on my collar; some things haven’t changed since I was a kid. Once inside, the bustling outdoor activity gives way to a peaceful serenity. I make my way through the American artists wing first, barely pausing at some of the more angst-ridden twenty-first century pieces that clash with my worldview today. There’s a long corridor with blank walls and as I’m thinking, what a waste of art real estate, I round the corner into another room.
No wasted space here! Rather, the room is filled with beautifully lit (I’m all about the lighting) period pieces, artifacts and furniture. Much of it is displayed in the context of one another, such as portraits over mantles and landscapes in parlor settings. One painting is even built into a stairway in a convincing trompe d’oeil. In fact, it is “Staircase Group” by Charles Willson Peale that makes me do a double-take. Framed on the wall next to it is the copperplate engraved “Admission Ticket to Peale’s Museum“, which is depicted in “Staircase Group” as if it’s just fallen from one of his son’s pockets, waiting for the viewer to pick it up and follow the boys inside. Art really works when it makes you feel or want to do something.
The furniture, artifacts, and paintings in context make it easy to imagine American homes in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. There are wall-to-wall cases of silver serving sets, displays of engraved personal miscellany such as flasks, shoe buckles, brooches and hairpins. It is all lovely, but it’s the eclectic collection of silver spoons that makes me look close enough to leave a nose smudge on the glass: Is Emaline’s telltale spoon among them? The spoon dips into the “House Key” story several times, first in Chapter 35: Runaway, and most notably in Chapter 37: Cannon Ball, when Jordan and Emaline find themselves scrambling as Civil War artillery blasts all around them.
There are more Civil War reminders throughout the museum, like Winslow Homer’s “Sounding Reveille” that was painted in oil circa 1871, depicting young buglers and drummers. They could easily have been the ones that wake Jordan into action at the opening of Chapter 37: Cannon Ball. Nearby hang wood engravings depicting more scenes of the Civil War, one a composition also by Winslow Homer titled, “The Army of the Potomac — A Sharp-Shooter on Picket Duty” and “The Emancipation of the Negroes, January 1863,” a composition by Thomas Nast. Both engravings appeared in Harper’s Weekly magazine, New York, on November 15, 1862 and January 24, 1863, respectively.
I think of Emaline’s charmed life before the war literally rolls down her road and upends her world, as I stare at Thomas Eakins’s vivid oil on canvas, “A May Morning in the Park (The Fairman Rogers Four-in-Hand)” dated 1879-80. Along the wall, another reminder of my intended purpose today comes from Eakins’s tranquil rowers as they gaze at me watching them from the shore in “The Pair-Oared Shell” of 1872. Quietly focused in subdued tones, they urge me to go back outside and catch the regatta on this beautiful May morning of 2015.