Today’s excursion was a visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, specifically, The American Collection. Art is not one of my strong areas of expertise, although I have the historian’s interest and understanding of the importance of art as a representation and interpretation of events throughout history.
I’m more familiar with the great masters such as Rembrandt, DaVinci, Vermeer, Wister, to name a few, than I am with American artists. Until visiting the Philadelphia Museum of Art, my knowledge of American painters was limited to Charles Russell, Ansel Adams, George Catlin, and Georgia O’Keefe. I admire the work of these three American artists and I recognize their work when I see them. I even know a little about their lives, but none of them really caught my attention to want to know more about them or any other American artists.
That changed as a result of my visit to the museum when I discovered the American artist, Thomas Eakins (1844-1916). As a result of seeing his paintings and listening to the tour guide tell about his life, I purchased a book entitled, The Revenge of Thomas Eakins by Sidney D. Kirkpatrick, to learn more about him. I also purchased several note cards of his paintings. His works seem to cover the person as both an individual and as a member of society. I like that his paintings represent regular people in everyday settings doing ordinary activities.
I think so many times, art and music aren’t given enough attention when we teach students about history. I think there’s a tendency to focus on the battles, the key players, the world events, and so on and gloss over the fine arts.
With Eakins, there is opportunity to delve into visual intrepretation and symbolism as well as the culture of the time. For instance, this painting entitled, The Concert Singer, could lead a discussion or a writing activity to compare the singer’s clothing compared to the clothing a concert singer wears today. Students could research the music of the time period, the famous singers, the theater or opera houses of the time, etc.
This painting lends itself to research into the medical practices of the time as well as the role women played in medicine and the societal attitudes toward women in the medical field.
I intend to use Eakins’ work in my 11th grade U.S. History class after introducing other American artists. I will delve more deeply into Eakins’ work, using the book as reference.
The last stop was down the steps to the Rocky statue. The Rocky persona is part of America’s pop culture and certainly worth mentioning here as a part of American history.
Then the last activity of the day was a guided tour through the haunted places around Independence Hall. The history behind the stories was quite interesting. I learned that the site of Washington Square (a city park now) was once a Potter’s field and the site of a gallows for public hangings. The story goes that during the terrible years of the Yellow Fever epidemics (1793 being the worst summer) people were buried in what is now Washington Square. A woman known only as “Leah” was appalled by the grave robbing that was going on, so she appointed herself “Keeper of the graves; protector of the souls” and she patrolled the area at night to stop people from looting the graves of the 6,000+ buried there. At some point, she simply disappeared, but she’s been seen in spectral form many times since then. The last documented sighting being 2005 by a beat cop who didn’t believe in ghosts.
The Powels and George and Martha Washington were close friends. The Washington’s danced in the Powel’s ballroom on one of their anniversaries. Ben Franklin frequented the residence also. You knew you’d made it in Philadelphia’s Polite Society if you were invited to the Powel mansion.
Just a little side note, the next picture is the church that was used in the filming of the movie The 6th Sense.
Researching the paranormal in U.S. history could be another avenue of discussion for the classroom. Many students like this topic. On a historical validity note, the guide said the people who own the tour group company have researched each story and they have several different sources of reference. Are any of the stories really true? Who knows, but putting the hauntings aside, the historical information was interesting and gave me a different snapshot of many of the places and people I’d already heard about in prior lectures and other tours.
I will also add that one of the events occurring at Gettysburg June 13th (the day I’ll be there) through 15th is “The Great Ghosthunters Gathering”, aka: G-4 Summit. It’s a gathering of 500 paranormal investigators from across the U.S. at Gettysburg which is reportedly one of the most haunted places in the country.
Going back to the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793: this has come up repeatedly in our tours. Here is a painting by Charles Willson Peale that depicts a mother’s sorrow at the death of her child from Yellow Fever. This would be an excellent sequey into a study and discussion of the diseases that plagued the colonists and the remedies used.
So, questions for Whittney and my history students.
Who was Peggy Shippen’s husband and what was the scandal related to him that devastated Peggy’s life and caused her to be shunned in Philadelphia’s polite society?
What is a Potter’s field?
Tomorrow, I’ll be visiting Lancaster, Pennsylvania to spend the day learning more about the Amish and Mennonite cultures.