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The University of Pennsylvania: Collector and Patron of Art, 1779-1979

August 12–September 16, 1979

This year, the University of Pennsylvania celebrates its two hundredth anniversary as the first seat of learning in the United States to be named a university. The colonial College of Philadelphia, established by Benjamin Franklin and others in 1740, founded its school of medicine in 1765 and was renamed by the Commonwealth legislature in 1779. After a brief period as the University of the State of Pennsylvania -- although from the first it was commonly known as the University of Pennsylvania -- the present title was adopted in 1791. Like the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the University is a leading attraction of the City of Philadelphia. The present exhibit of works owned by, or otherwise associated with, the University is the result of a close cooperation in which the Museum joins the University in celebrating its bicentenary. Collecting works of art is rarely a major function of universities. With time, however, objects that may originally have had a purely educational function gain in importance as historical artifacts. The scientific instruments purchased for the College by Benjamin Franklin or acquired by its first provost, William Smith, are objects of this kind. Although these have passed from the University's hands to the collections, among others, of the Smithsonian and the National Parks, the magnificent mechanical planetarium known for its maker as the Rittenhouse Orrery is still on view in the University Library. Interest in material of this nature in recent years has been underscored at the Philadelphia Museum: the national Bicentennial exhibit and the magnificent Second Empire exhibit showed that products of an era may illustrate both the historical and the artistic expression of an age. Throughout its history, the University has been to some degree a sponsor and progenitor of the visual arts. Among the talented students of the original graduating class was the versatile Francis Hopkinson, who designed the first American flag in 1777 as well as signing the Declaration of Independence. At Pennsylvania, moreover, the importance to learning and the aesthetic appeal of archeological discoveries was recognized a century ago by members of the University community. As a result, the University Museum was established in 1889 and soon became one of the great archaeological museums of the world. In recent times, important contributions have been made locally and internationally by artists and architects from the University community. The first major building designed by alumnus and professor of architecture Louis I. Kahn was constructed at the University. Along with the Furness Building and Eero Saarinen's Hill Hall, Kahn's Richards Medical Research Building is an architectural treasure on permanent view to visitors to Pennsylvania's campus. The University's associations with the world of art thus result primarily from its historical functions of teaching and research, regularly reinforced by successive generations of talented students and faculty. Finally, with the passage of time and the regard of its friends, the University has almost incidentally become a collector. In this further role, the University appears as patron and, more importantly, as repository for the arts. Housed in many different buildings, the University of Pennsylvania's collection comprises more than 2,500 objects of wildly varying interest and historic or artistic merit. The objects selected for the present exhibition come primarily from the gifts and bequests that the university has accumulated over the years. Included also are representative examples of works commissioned or created by members of the University community. Our aim, then, is to give some indication of the riches which, in the course of over two hundred years, have gathered around an institution of learning. The Philadelphia Museum of Art has recently celebrated the centennial of its charter and the first half century of its buildings. It provides a splendid setting for this bicentenary exhibit and the objects that are here brought together for the first time.


University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia Museum of Art

Main Building


Darrel Sewell

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