A primer for exploring art and history in Franco-Philadelphia


Though it’s unlikely for a traveler to set out solely to visit French Philadelphia, every visitor to the City of Brotherly Love inevitably passes views and reminders of French culture and Franco-American relations. Glimpses of Franco-Philly connections from the time of the American Revolution to the present are found in ways great and small throughout the area from Penn’s Landing to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and beyond: from the statue of George Washington, made by a French artist, that stands in front of Independence Hall, to the influence of French neo-Renaissance architecture in the design of Philadelphia’s City Hall; from the Eiffel Tower on the counter by the entrance to The Book Trader to the layout of the Ben Franklin Parkway, planned and designed by Frenchmen; from extraordinary French works of art in Philadelphia’s art museums to the city’s many venues for French cuisine.

The area between 17th and 19th Streets has even been officially designated as Philadelphia’s French Quarter, though that quarter’s well-heeled midtown comforts and commerce are not to be confused with the wrought iron balconies and flashed breasts on Bourbon Street, New Orleans.

Exploring French arts
The most Philadelphian—and American—of sights are often graced with French-made sculptures. As mentioned above, the statue of George Washington that stands in front of Independence Hall is by a Frenchman, Alexis Bailly. The statue of Washington that stands at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of the American Revolution is by another Frenchman, Jean-Antoine Houdon.

The sculpture Lion Crushing a Serpent by French sculptor Antoine-Louis Bayre graces Rittenhouse Square at the central crossing of curved paths à la Parc Monceau in Paris. The statue at Drexel University of Alsatian Vintner, whose big toe is rubbed by students with a wish for good grades, is the work of Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, creator of that most American of French-made monuments, The Statue of Liberty.

The collection of decorative works at The Athenaeum reveals a French touch as does the alabaster Louis XVI-era clock at the Rosenbach Museum. There’s also French Empire furniture at the Physick House, 322 Spruce Street, where Louis-Philippe, duc d’Orléans, lived in exile from Revolutionary France in 1796. He would eventually become King of the French from 1830 to 1848.

But it’s in Philadelphia’s major museums that French works go beyond particular points of Francophile interest and become centerpieces of world-class collections.

Philadelphia’s museum mile is the Ben Franklin Parkway, which was planned and designed in the early 20th century by Frenchmen Paul Cret and Jacques Gréber, who drew their inspiration from the Champs-Elysées, with Logan Square (traffic-wise a circle) as its Place de la Concorde and the Philadelphia Museum of Art as its Arc de Triomphe. Twin buildings—the Philadelphia Free Library and the Municipal Court—modeled after those on Paris’s Place de la Concorde, border the square. The Rodin Museum borders the Parkway as does site of the future home of the Barnes Foundation collection.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Rodin Museum, and the Barnes Foundation are the repositories of world-class collections of French art from 1850 to 1920. The richness of these collections is due in particular to the wealth, artistic curiosity, and civic-mindedness of three American collectors who helped transformed Philadelphia from a Francophile city into a major outpost of French art in the United States:

1. John G. Johnson (1846-1917), a lawyer, also once director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum, donated 1200 paintings to the City of Philadelphia. Though his vast collection was Eurocentric rather than specifically French, he was a relatively early buyer of works by Manet, Monet, and Degas. His collection served as the foundation of what would become the extensive survey of European—largely French—art from 1850 to 1900 that occupies a major wing of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

What the wing lacks in poster-famous works it more than make up for in the breadth of the collection. Allow me to do some French name dropping: Corot, Degas, Manet, Courbet, Boudin, Monet, Paris work by Mary Cassatt (who was born in Pittsburg and raised in Philadelphia), Cézanne, Puvis de Chavannes, Millet, Delacroix, Renoir, Pissarro, Gaugin, Van Gogh, Toulouse Lautrec, Rousseau, Chagall, Bonnard, Vlaminck, Vuillard. Wow!

Meanwhile, more quietly, in the museum’s permanent collection, the medieval wing pays homage to the French arts with a portal from the Abbey Church of Saint Laurent, near the Loire River, a fountain and cloister from Roussillon (southwest France), and various medieval religious sculptures, paintings and stained glass windows.

2. Jules Mastbaum (1872-1926) made his fortune as a movie theater magnate and began collecting the work of Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) six years after the sculptor’s death. Along with the purchase of many pieces that Rodin had signed, Mastbaum gained permission from France (Rodin willed his private collection and models to the State) to make new bronze castings of a number of major pieces. In 1926 he commissioned none other than Cret and Gréber, who were responsible for the creation of the Ben Franklin Parkway, to design the museum building and gardens that would become home to the world’s second largest Rodin collection outside of the French national collection, primarily on display at Paris’s Musée Rodin. When Mastbaum died as the Philadelphia project was getting underway his widow honored his commitment to the city, and the Rodin Museum was inaugurated in 1929.

As decided by Mastbaum, visitors are greeted by The Thinker in a replica of the Rodin Memorial at Meudon, outside of Paris. At the top of the stairs leading to the portico stands The Gates of Hell, which he begun in 1880 when commissioned to create an entrance to a museum of decorative arts and which morphed into an intensely personal vision of Dante’s Inferno (The Thinker there represents Dante himself) that Rodin frequently revisited for the rest of his life. The Burghers of Calais, Rodin’s most defining work, is the centerpiece of the museum. As a museum experience, travelers familiar with Paris’s Musée Rodin will find Philadelphia’s Rodin Museum comparatively cramped and dark. Yet the works are enough to draw anyone deeper in Rodin… and back to Paris.

3. Albert Barnes (1872-1951) followed up his medical training with the co-development of an antiseptic silver compound called Argyrol. In his mid-thirties he bought out his partner and within several years had amassed enough a fortune that, combined with an intense interest in art and in education, led to his collecting great modern works of art and displaying them for study. With 181 works by Renoir, 69 by Cézanne, 59 by Matisse, and numerous works by Degas, Van Gogh, Seurat, Manet, Monet,  Picasso, Soutine, Rousseau, Modigliani, and others, the Barnes’s collection of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century masterpieces is as substantial a homage to French artists (and to other artists who lived in France) as can be found anywhere outside France. Hundreds of other works complete the collection, including African sculpture, antiquities, and Old Masters, but the overwhelming scent of the Barnes is Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and early Modern French.

In 1922 he created the Barnes Foundation to “promote the advancement of education and the appreciation of the fine arts.” He then hired Paul Cret, who several years later would be commissioned to design the Rodin Museum, to design the foundation’s gallery and adjacent residence in Merion, a western suburb of Philadelphia.

By the 1980s the foundation’s dwindling endowment had come into conflict with the collection’s rising value, the collection’s suburban home had come into conflict with its enormous drawing power, and the foundation’s by-laws had come in conflict with easy remedy. As a result, the Barnes Foundation was painted in legal controversy for years. The courts had been called upon to “help” Girard College (see below) evolve and to “enable” Johnson’s collection to be serve the public good, and now the Barnes collection has obtained judicial permission to move to Philadelphia’s museum row along the Parkway, near the Rodin Museum. (The foundation had previously gained court permission to put on a traveling show of dozens of its most celebrated works, which took place from 1993 to 1995 and included a triumphant exhibit in Paris’s Orsay Museum.) Given the time that it will take to resolve outstanding issues and to create the new home for the collection, the works will remains just where Barnes left them for another several years.

With the eventual move of the Barnes to the Parkway, the totality of French works in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in the Rodin, and in the Barns can well be considered as a single collection, no matter who overseas the individual works. City officials might then have to extend Philadelphia’s “French Quarter” out to the Ben Franklin Parkway!

Valley Forge
A plaque at Philadelphia’s City Hall indicates the place where in 1781 French troops under Rochambeau camped during their march south to Yorktown. For a broader sign of the French-American alliance that was essential to American victory in the Revolutionary War, head out through the western suburb to Valley Forge National Park.

In 1777 and 1778, while the British occupied the America’s Revolution-era capital, Philadelphia, Washington’s army encamped and trained and gathered their force along the ridges of Valley Forge, 25 miles west of the city. Though the British were only a day’s march away, they didn’t attack the encampment because the Americans held such a favorable position, besides which the British felt confident staying put since, after all, they occupied the capital city.

Colonial regimens from throughout the United States gathered here from December 19, 1777, with an initial encampment of about 10,000 soldiers, to June 19, 1778, when about 20,000 decamped, with another 10,000 having passed through during that period. Despite about 2000 deaths, due more to disease rather than the legendary harsh winter, Valley Forge witnessed the transformation of a rag-tag army into a lean, mean, ready-to-fight machine.

Valley Forge may have been little more than a well-positioned demonstration of force initially, but by the time the army decamped it had gained in men, strength, training, and unity, and it was prepared to go on the offensive, secure in the knowledge that France had officially thrown its weight on their side.

On Feb. 6, 1778, on the heel of news of American success against the British at Saratoga that reached Europe at the end of 1777, Louis XVI’s France signed the Treaties of Amity and Commerce and of Alliance Eventual and Defensive Between His Most Christian Majesty and the Thirteen United States of America. News of the treaty reached the American coast in March 1778. That Treaty of Alliance, as it was called, was ratified by Congress on May 4 and two days later celebrated at Valley Forge in an all-out parade and feu de joie ([gun] fire of joy).

Many early French enthusiasts of the American cause spent time here that winter and spring, including Louis Duportail (chief engineering officer), Pierre L’Enfant (who later designed Washington, D.C.), Louis Tousard (an artillery expert), and two of the five major-generals, Marquis de Lafayette and Baron DeKalb. Baron Von Steuben, the Prussian officer who honed the troops with intensive drilling, largely spoke French while here. It was he who oversaw the Francophile feu de joie of May 4, 1778. The statue of Von Steuben that overlooks those parade grounds was erected in 1915 by the National German-American Alliance.

The oddity of European aristocrats overseeing American Revolutionary soldiers wasn’t lost on Von Steuben who wrote that winter to a fellow baron: [I do not try to introduce] the entire system of drills, evolutions, maneuvers, discipline, tactics, and Prussian formation into our Army. I should have been pelted had I attempted it, and should inevitably have failed. The genius of this nation is not in the least to be compared with that of the Prussians, Austrians, or French. You say to your soldier [in Europe], “Do this” and he doeth it; but I am obliged to say “This is the reason why you ought to do that,” and then he does it.

Valley Forge Supervisory Ranger (and historian) Bill Troppman, my source for much of this information, is himself of German and French Huguenot decent. Concerning the latter, he notes that some descendents of French Huguenots (Protestants) also fought on the British side since many of them had fled religious intolerance France when Huguenots became fair game after 1685—they were not about to turn around and support the reigning French Catholics.

Washington’s headquarters, a private home that he rented while at Valley Forge, is the main remnant from that period at Valley Forge National Historical Park, along with some entrenchments. Nevertheless, an informative Visitors Center, various monuments, reconstructions of soldier and officer cabins, guided tours, Washington Memorial Chapel, and reenactments reveal the importance of the 6-month encampment at Valley Forge as a turning point in the American Revolution.

Among the monuments is the United States Memorial Arch, erected to commemorate the arrival of General George Washington and his Continental Army into Valley Forge. Dedicated in 1917, at a time when America was aiding the French in WWI, the arch was designed by Paul Cret, the Frenchman who was responsible for the design of the Philadelphia urban projects noted above. It is a simplified version of the Triumphal Arch of Titus in Rome (A.D. 81) which marked the capture of Jerusalem by Emperor Titus in A.D. 70, the same arch that inspired Napoleon’s Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

The 1778 Treaty of Alliance with the French is celebrated annually at Valley Forge the first weekend in May.

Napoleon’s brother Joseph Bonaparte
One of the greatest insults a river-born city can suffer over time is being cut off from the river that is its raison d’être, as Philadelphia has been largely cut off from the Delaware, a fact definitively confirmed by the construction of I-95. Philadelphians have an easier time getting to the Jersey shore at Atlantic City, 60 miles southeast, than to the immediate banks of the Delaware. Not that the view of South Jersey on the opposite bank is much to look at.

Perhaps that’s why Joseph Bonaparte (1768-1844), a reluctant King of Naples then King of Spain in his brother Napoleon’s empire, chose to go upriver when looking to develop a suitable estate to call home during his exile from France after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815. Soon after his arrival in the United States he took up residence in the heart of Philadelphia at 260 South 9th Street. He lived there until 1816, when he moved to an estate he named Point Breeze, overlooking the Delaware from Bordentown, New Jersey, 25 miles northeast of Philadelphia. There, Joseph took the comparatively discreet name of Comte de Survilliers and settled into a life of refined and peaceable exile.

More information on France Revisited about Joseph Bonaparte is found by clicking here. To truly delve into the subject, the best source is Philadelphia resident Patricia Tyson Stroud’s The Man Who Had Been King (2005), winner of the New Jersey Council for the Humanities Annual Book Award and recipient of a Prize from the International Napoleonic Society.

Stephen Girard
No one could ever accuse Joseph Bonaparte as being American. But there is another Frenchman from that period who is in many ways an archetype of the American success story: Etienne-cum-Stephen Girard (1750-1831). In 1776, while his ship headed to New York Harbor, Girard was forced to seek refuge in the Port of Philadelphia due to the British blockade. He soon made Philadelphia his permanent residence, and in 1778 he officially became an American under the name Stephen Girard.

Little by little he built a fortune in commerce and banking, eventually becoming one of the wealthiest men in America. He willed much of his fortune to the City of Philadelphia and to local causes, in particular for the creation of a school for the education of poor, white, male orphans. Girard College, now located just off Girard Avenue, has evolved along with America and American case law. Now open to girls and to all creeds and races, it is a private boarding school for grades 1 through 12 for children from families with limited financial resources, each headed by a single parent or guardian. All Girard students receive full scholarships. Girard’s remains are entombed in the school’s central building, Founder’s Hall.

Click here and go to portrait #9 to see how a French engineer came to write a historical novel about Girard.

French Philadelphia: the book, the producer, the publisher
Whatever part of French Philadelphia you might wish to explore, whether by armchair or on foot, one of the best places to start is, well, French Philadelphia, a 108-page guide to the French cultural and historical presence in Philadelphia and surroundings. The book proceeds by neighborhood in revealing the extent of French ties and influences in William Penn’s City of Brotherly Love. Produced for the Alliance Francaise de Philadelphie, it was begun by the late Annette H. Emgarth and expanded by Lynn H. Miller,

As Lynn H. Miller writes in the book’s introduction, “[French] statesmen, adventurers, and soldiers arrived through the period of the War of Independence (1776-1783), thanks to France’s support of the would-be new nation. With the French Revolution (1789), the upheaval that followed in the French West Indies, and the aftermath of [Napoleon’s defeat at] Waterloo (1815), Philadelphia received many thousands more French people uprooted from their homelands. Their cultural, social, political, and economic impact left deep impressions on Penn’s fundamentally English town.”

Lynn, who contributed the article about Frenchtown, New Jersey for France Revisited’s Franco-Philly series, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Temple University and a member of the Board of Directors of the Alliance Francaise de Philadelphie.

Alliance Francaise de Philadelphie leads the way in Franco-Philly associations for Philadelphian interested in France. The first Alliances in the United States were created in Boston and Baltimore in 1901, with Philadelphia’s being formed in 1903. It now has 400 members and about 1200 students in its French classes. For the past 20 years it has been run by Executive Director Martine Chauvet, born in France and now a 40-year resident of Philadelphia.

French Philadelphia is published by Philadelphia’s Francophile publishing company Beach Lloyd Publisher, founded by Joanne Silver. Joanne, having taught French in high schools in suburban Philadelphia for 30 years prior to creating Beach Lloyd Publisher, named the company in honor of her father, a Navy medic who took part in the D-Day Landing at Omaho Beach. Her company’s mission is “to recognize the strong historical and ideological ties that bind France and the United States, and to view those ideals globally.” Beach Lloyd publishes books in English and in French, particularly memoirs and classroom guides concerning individuals in France during WWII and French-speaking Holocaust survivors. French Philadelphia is also available in French under the title Philadelphie à la française.

In 2008 Joanne was named Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes académiques by the French government in recognition of her work in advancing the cause of French culture, education and the arts and of her active contribution to the expansion of French culture throughout the world.

By Gary Lee Kraut

© 2009, Gary Lee Kraut

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