LIVING ART HISTORY
By Charles T. Joyce
Rittenhouse Square Park is as historic as it is beautiful: It survives as one of the five original parks that William Penn laid out for the city he founded in 1683. It’s fitting, therefore, that our artists and their original fine art grace this ground, because the Rittenhouse Square Fine Art Show is the oldest outdoor art festival in the nation.
In 1928, students at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, inspired by the street art exhibits in Paris, became determined to mount such a show here. According to a contemporary news account these young artists won support from other area art schools, and petitioned Governmental and Cultural authorities for permission to hang an art show in “the heart of the city – Rittenhouse Square.” The encouragement these institutions provided prefigured the strong and supportive bond that continues today between our show and the Friends of Rittenhouse Square Park, custodians since 1976 of this vital urban space.
Unlike today, the inaugural “Art Flea Market” featured works hung on clotheslines “strung between the trees.” In many other respects however, that first Rittenhouse exhibition mirrored what you see now as you explore our Show. Early patrons encountered a diverse display of genres and styles, from “the most modern of the modernists to the most conservative of the conservatists,” a mix you will enjoy today. And just like in 1928, modern visitors who venture into the center of the Square will experience the infectious energy displayed by our participating students, who continue to be the creative pulse of the Show.
Over the years, our Show generated controversies that seem almost quaint to modern eyes. In the 1930s, a local “Communist Group” allegedly infiltrated the artist ranks and “swamped the clotheslines with political propaganda in oils and watercolors” to the consternation of the Philadelphia establishment. Later, the Show was raided by Philadelphia police who removed representations of the nude figure deemed “too anatomical for the mixed public on Rittenhouse Square.” The Rittenhouse Art show has also weathered hard times. With the nation at war in 1942, only 29 artists were able to participate, a far cry from the nearly 150 professional painters, printmakers, and sculptors, along with more than a dozen art students exhibiting today.
So as you take in our 93rd exhibition of original art chosen from among some of the finest talent in the country, you’ll see that the tradition of artistic excellence remains thriving here in the City of Brotherly Love.
Note: All quotes in this article are from archives of The Philadelphia Record, a daily newspaper published 1877-1947. Charles T. Joyce is a painter and student of history.