How John H. McFadden Helped Create the Philadelphia Museum of Art


The new John H. McFadden biography by Richard Carreño is just a lot of fun.

A biography of John H. McFadden by Richard Carreño

So you get an email press release about a new biography of a Philadelphian you’ve never heard of, and the caption is “Cotton and Culture in Philadelphia,” and you think : Eh ? Cotton and Philly? And you almost hit delete. But for some reason – hey, anyone who still writes real books at least deserves a chance – you decide to read the thing. And the result is that you spend the next three consecutive days in awe of it, laughing so often with joy that your husband keeps saying, “What is this book about again?”

This is what happened to me with John H. McFadden and his age, a new biography by Richard Carreño (Camino Books). And let me tell you that as someone who likes to think they know something about the history of Philly, I found it both humbling and fascinating to know more about an era and a guy whose I had never known anything.

What made me laugh over and over again was Carreño’s incredibly sarcastic commentary on the city’s society at the turn of the last century. (Example of his discussion of building the Wellington, the commercial hotel / apartment house that McFadden built right on Rittenhouse Square, to the dismay of its most energetic inhabitants: “The architectural catalogs all agree on one point : none can offer a description of Wellington’s architectural style. ”)

McFadden, who lived from 1850 to 1921, was an upstart, cotton tycoon who made his fortune as a result of the Civil War, as cotton production made an intermittent transition from plantations operated by slaves to farms owned by to small sharecroppers. His company had an office in Liverpool, England, and it was there, Carreño writes, that McFadden developed an interest in art. He started a collection which, through a series of highly unlikely events and coincidences, led to the construction of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

It was a time when newcomers like McFadden intruded into the very stilted and circumscribed upper echelon of Philadelphia society – this was the height of the robber barons – and the clash between the nouveau riche and the nobility. The town’s long standing has led to developments such as the rise of mainline and men’s clubs while providing some really fun read. Highly recommended! Here are some excerpts from what I learned.

1. We hate New York

While Philadelphia caused an international sensation with the 1876 International centenary exhibition, which turned out to be a sort of last hurray, as civic importance gradually shifted north to New York. But the WASP establishment in Philly, Carreño writes, was “not very sorry about the loss of supremacy. An anonymous writer at The New York Times … Citing a recent visit, noted that New York was welcome in its “dust”, an unpleasant by-product of its “business and bustle”. He preferred, he said to Times, ‘the Quaker cleanliness and Quaker silence of most of the arteries of Philadelphia.’ ”

2. A school lunch

John McFadden’s dad shelled out to attend the most prestigious of local private schools, Episcopal Academy, then in Juniper and Locust streets. (Tuition was $ 60 per year.) Students learned Latin, algebra, geography, math, and French, taught by “none other than a native of France.” A banquet of the ancients of 1864 included “oysters on the half-shell, partridges, pheasant, grouse, corn, potatoes, peas, spinach, boiled oysters, fried oysters and croquettes. , followed by desserts from Charlotte Russe, vanilla and strawberry ice cream, almonds, raisins, English walnuts and prunes. The infiltration of scum in Rittenhouse Square prompted the school to move to the Main Line in 1921.

3. Warm party!

John’s brother and partner, George McFadden, was married to a Emily Barclay Kennedy, daughter of the director of the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad. Sadly, Emily, Carreño notes, “was known for her weak temper, once so severe that she was hospitalized in ‘critical condition’ after ‘overworking her strength’ with a solid party. The New York Times reported, in a story sporting the impassive title “PHILADELPHIA’S LIVELY PACE”, that she fell ill from “the stress of social activities” during “the merry whirlwind of the company season.”

4. Snobs at heart

Despised by the city’s well-established establishment, McFadden and his peers at Gilded Age Philly, including John graver johnson, Peter Arrell Browne Widener, and William Lukens Elkins, turned to the art collection in search of “another kind of long-term validation of the timeless permanence and cultural brilliance of art.” To consolidate their own heritage as patrons of art, they often built opulent baroque mansions that rippled with gaping walls. But they almost exclusively bought European works: “Cultural snobbery and misconceptions,” Carreño says, “relegated American artists to the background, even in Philadelphia, where one of the country’s foremost practitioners lived and worked under them. nose. Thomas Eakins‘s home and studio were not far from Rittenhouse Square at 1729 Mount Vernon Street.

5. The best plans

McFadden’s original plan was to convert his Wellington apartment into a private house-museum for his art collection – until he apparently realized the collection was “too tightly organized … to attract the large-scale audience he wanted “. A temporary installation at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts drew unpublished full-page criticism in the New York Times, Carreño notes, “New York came to Philadelphia to recognize the McFadden group as a national treasure. And a public, which is no longer locked within the limits of the 19th and walnut. Driven by cheers, McFadden embarked on a shopping spree. His death in 1921 and the terms of his will ensured the construction of the long-planned and much-discussed Pennsylvania Museum on his familiar hill in Fairmount – but not without much drama.

6. True British

In McFadden’s day, Philadelphia was known for its Anglomania; the architecture was Georgian and late Victorian, and the neighborhoods had colloquial names taken from the boroughs of London: Mayfair, Richmond, Southwark. Cricket was popular “even among the working classes,” Carreño says, and the people of Philly were the only Americans to call their sidewalks “sidewalks,” as the British do. “The British presence was so strong in Kensington, a neighborhood in North Philadelphia,” he adds, “it was nicknamed ‘Little England’. Imagine that.

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