The premier cultural institution in Philadelphia, this epic art museum would stand out even without Rocky's famous antics on the east steps. Every visitor is entitled to one two-gloves-raised salute to the city at the top of the stairway before leaving the movies behind and concentrating instead on the great works of art from Europe, Asia and the Americas displayed in the galleries inside.
Exploring the Philadelphia Museum of Art
Many Philly attractions are free, but the Philadelphia Museum of Art is definitely worth the entry fee. Walking through the towering, column-flanked doorway is a journey into a temple to art. Alongside works by great European masters and modern artists, you can take a whirlwind tour through Asian creativity, from Japan and Korea to the Indian subcontinent, and be transported to other worlds by complete architectural ensembles, including a medieval cloister, Chinese and Indian temples and a Japanese teahouse.
Starting with the painting collection, the Renaissance, post-impressionism, and French impressionism are particularly well-represented. Standout pieces include Renoir's The Large Bathers, Rubens' Prometheus Bound, Picasso's Three Musicians, Turner's The Burning of the Houses of Lords & Commons and Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky by Benjamin West, marking an event that took place just a mile away in 1752.
American artists get their time in the sun, with displays of Pennsylvania furniture and jewellery and artworks by home-grown artists, such as gifted realist Thomas Eakins and African American painter Henry Ossawa Tanner (look for his moody The Annunciation). The museum also has impressive collections of Asian ceramics, and a bristling array of arms and armor amassed by collector Carl Otto Kretzschmar von Kienbusch.
The sculpture collection focuses on European greats (Rodin, Giacometti et al), joined by a bronze of Rocky at the bottom of the east steps (originally a prop from the movie Rocky III). The best of the Rodin works are displayed in the Rodin Museum (covered by the same ticket), a short stroll southeast through Fairmount Park along Benjamin Franklin Pkwy.
Museum of Art tickets also cover entry to the Perelman Building across Pennsylvania Ave, an imposing art deco building housing collections of costumes, textiles, prints, drawings, photographs, and modern and contemporary design. On the same ticket, you can also visit two historic homes: Mount Pleasant, a handsome 18th-century mansion described by John Adams 'as the most elegant seat in Pennsylvania', and Cedar Grove, a typical gambrel-roofed home from the 1750s, moved here from the suburb of Frankford in 1928.
The history of the Philadelphia Museum of Art
The grand, neoclassical building housing the Museum of Art is a surprisingly recent construction, completed in 1928. The design was influenced by the architecture of London's great museums, and the Victoria & Albert Museum inspired its philosophical direction as a center for both education and training. However, the first pieces in the museum collection were gathered together in 1876 as part of the celebrations for the centennial of the Declaration of Independence.
The collection was initially displayed on the premises of the Franklin Institute (now the Philadelphia History Museum), which also ran regular classes aimed at cultivating new artistic talent. The collection soon swelled with donations of European artworks and Asian craft objects, leading to the construction of the present sprawling premises on Benjamin Franklin Pkwy.
In fact, despite many renovations, the original plans were never completed. Polychrome friezes of classical Greek deities were intended to grace all the pediments, but only the group on the east entrance of the north wing were finished. The building has since been modernised many times, most recently by Frank Gehry, who revamped many of the interior spaces in minimalist modernist style in 2021.
Tickets & Practicalities
There's so much to see that a ticket covers admission for two days, here and at the separate Perelman Building, Rodin Museum, Mount Pleasant and Cedar Grove. Advance booking online is a wise move – the museum can be mobbed by weekday school groups and weekend tours. Tickets are released four weeks ahead, on Tuesdays. It's worth dipping into the museum store for neat gifts inspired by the collection.