The Making of SALUT!

This week in North Philly Notes, Lynn Miller and Therese Dolan discuss their collaboration on Salut! France Meets Philadelphia.

We have both had a life-long love affair with France. We first became acquainted years ago as colleagues on the Temple faculty. Once we discovered our shared Gallic infatuation, we began to chat about those things in the Philadelphia area that had a French flavor. Some wonderful restaurants were part of it, naturellement, but we soon began to discover an amazing variety of French flavors, figuratively speaking, throughout our region’s history. And as we tasted, the hungrier we grew for more.

Early on, there was Philadelphia’s most famous citizen, Benjamin Franklin, who spent the Revolutionary War years in Paris persuading the government of Louis XVI to support the American cause. That support almost certainly was decisive in securing the nation’s independence. French philosophes, meanwhile, were the chief inspiration for the nation’s two great founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—both of which were signed in Independence Hall. That building’s name, by the way, was bestowed on the Pennsylvania Statehouse by our first great foreign hero, the Marquis de Lafayette, when he returned to Philadelphia in 1824 as part of his triumphal tour of the nation he’d helped create.

The American Revolution provided copious dramatic events and distinguished heroes along with prime opportunities for artists to create a distinctive American imagery and style in art. When the nation emerged as an independent entity it needed visual symbols to define its purpose and forge its new identity at home and abroad. In 1779, the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania deemed that those who rendered distinguished services to their country should have their resemblances in statues and paintings. This was what “the wisest, freest and bravest nations” do “in their most virtuous times.” The development of an image of the American national character between the Colonial, Revolutionary, and Federal periods largely depended on portraiture. Charles Willson Peale and his son Rembrandt, along with Gilbert Stuart, were inundated with requests for replicas of their portraits of Washington. Thomas Jefferson brought sculpted busts from France to install in his gallery of worthies at Monticello and purchased sixty-three paintings during his stay in Paris in the hopes of stimulating his American citizens to appreciate the visual and intellectual effectiveness of the fine arts as an intellectual tool for the betterment of the nation.

Philadelphia is obviously not a “French” city like New Orleans or Montreal. Larger numbers of German, Irish, and Italian immigrants settled here than did those of French origin. But the French connections in some respects stand out because they were often made by specific individuals who left important legacies here. That of Stephen Girard, the richest man in the United States early in the 19th century, includes a school for orphans and many blocks of real estate in Center City. Napoleon LeBrun designed both the Academy of Music and the Basilica Cathedral of SS Peter and Paul. Two Frenchmen, Paul Philippe Cret and Jacques Gréber, created our very own Champs-Elysées, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Georges Perrier emigrated here from France as a young man to establish Le Bec-Fin, which would soon be regarded as one of the finest restaurants in America.

Not only have the French immigrated to Philadelphia, France became the training ground for a number of our region’s—and America’s—greatest artists. They include Rembrandt Peale, Thomas Eakins, Mary Cassatt and Henry Ossawa Tanner. Paris remained primarily a city visited as a stopover in the education of an American artist on the Grand Tour of European cities in the first decades of the nineteenth century. However, what had been a trickle of artists seeking artistic education in the early years became a veritable torrent of aspiring practitioners by the end of the century. Paris eventually replaced London and Rome as a destination to study art, to the point where the twentieth-century philosopher and cultural critic, Walter Benjamin, dubbed it the capital of the nineteenth century.

Early in the 20th century, the New Hope school of Pennsylvania Impressionists all took their inspiration from their older French counterparts. Art institutions in Philadelphia, including the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Barnes Foundation, are home to some of the most important collections of French art in the world. The city’s Rodin Museum holds the largest collection of that French master’s sculptures outside France.

Just as we learned from the research we did in the course of writing Salut!, we also learned from each other. And we thoroughly enjoyed exploring this subject together. That’s what good collaboration should always be about. We hope readers enjoy Salut! as well.

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