Restored Rodin Museum Impresses
by thomas h. keels
According to family legend, Jules Mastbaum’s fascination with the works of renowned French sculpture Auguste Rodin began in Paris in 1923. Touring Europe, the Philadelphia theater magnate was captivated by a small bronze hand by Rodin he glimpsed in a Parisian shop window, and bought the piece on the spot. By 1926, less than a decade after Rodin’s passing in 1917, he possessed more than 200 sculptures and more than 600 drawings by the artist, including casts of such masterpieces as The Thinker and The Gates of Hell. He had also decided to share his priceless collection with his native city.
On November 29, 1929—nearly three years after Mastbaum’s unexpected death—his family admitted the public to the Rodin Museum on the Fairmount (today Benjamin Franklin) Parkway between 21st and 22nd Streets. Designed by Paul Philippe Cret, the Beaux-Arts edifice resembled a delicate jewel box placed within an Arcadian setting crafted by landscape architect Jacques Gréber (two decades earlier, Cret and Gréber had created the original design for the Parkway). Thousands of visitors—including New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker, Philadelphia Mayor Harry Mackey, and French Ambassador Paul Claudel—crowded the Parkway to view the largest collection of works by Rodin outside Paris.
This July, Philadelphia and the world were able to appreciate Mastbaum’s vision as it first appeared, when the Rodin Museum reopened after a four-year, $9.1 million restoration undertaken by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This comprehensive renovation of the museum and gardens has restored the once-faded glory of what Timothy Rub, George D. Widener director and CEO of The Philadelphia Museum of Art, calls “a beautiful building in a beautiful landscape—a timeless melding of setting and collection.”
For years after its opening, the Rodin Museum sat neglected between an athletic field and a juvenile detention center on a forlorn stretch of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. On average, it received between 50,000 and 60,000 visitors annually, a far cry from the 390,000 of its first year of operation. It was only when the Barnes Foundation—one of the world’s greatest collections of French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art—broke ground for its new home one block east of the Rodin Museum that the tide began to turn for the museum. “One simple fact,” admits Rub. “Right across the street a new museum is going to open up that is going to bring about a quarter of a million people to the Parkway during any given year. This would be a great time for the renovation and reinstallation of the Rodin to make use of this wonderful kind of trigger.”
By then, the Philadelphia-based landscape design firm of Olin had launched an interpretive redesign of the Gréber gardens. According to Olin partner Susan Weiler, “Our goal for the Rodin Museum was to restore the symmetry of the formal French plan, but also to reunify the whole block as a Parkway garden, so what we have now achieved is a garden within a garden on the Parkway.” While retaining Gréber’s classical design, Olin expanded the outdoor space and installed fresh plantings evocative of France, such as beds of lavender around the reflecting pool in front of the museum.
While Olin re-created the landscape, the PMA curatorial staff spent 18 months researching the Rodin Museum’s original appearance before closing its doors in 2011 to begin work. “We found scraps of the original linenlike fabric used for the wall coverings and matching paint samples,” notes Jennifer Thompson, associate curator. Rub believes the focus on restoration was critical because, “It’s one of those rare examples of building and collection being considered as a piece. Cret designed the building with presentation of specific pieces in mind. It is an ensemble.”
Besides the building, PMA staff also restored individual works from the museum collection. Originally, seven bronze sculptures by Rodin stood on the building exterior or throughout the gardens, designed by Gréber to serve as outdoor galleries. As pollution discolored and disfigured the works over the years, several were moved indoors. Conservators used lasers to remove impurities, and then applied new patinas and protective coatings. Most of the works (along with an additional eighth) have been returned to their original spaces outside, their bronze a lustrous black-brown once again.
Today, visitors enter an environment nearly the same as that unveiled in 1929, where Rodin’s Thinker greets them before the open arch of a French Baroque façade. This is a replica of Rodin’s grave at Meudon, his country home and workshop outside Paris. According to Thompson, “There’s a sense of stepping off the Parkway and through a late-17th-century façade that evokes a French context for the sculpture. Then you come into a different, gardenlike environment, and then you enter the museum itself.” Within the museum’s recessed entrance looms The Gates of Hell, a monumental sculpture inspired by Dante’s Inferno. Nearly 20 feet high and 13 feet wide, The Gates of Hell contains 227 individual figures. During the 37 years that he labored on this seminal work, Rodin expanded several of these figures into individual works like The Kiss and The Thinker.
Once inside, visitors enter the central gallery, its beige linen walls and brown moldings illuminated by a large skylight. It was here that iconoclastic architect Louis I. Kahn—then a young man working for Cret—proposed to his future wife, Esther Israeli, soon after the museum’s opening. On the northern wall of the gallery stands a white marble bust of Mastbaum, a fine-featured man who owned the Stanley Company, one of America’s largest chains of movie theaters.
One of the mysteries of the museum is what compelled Mastbaum to collect Rodin so obsessively. Thompson thinks his initial interest may have been professional, saying, “He was buying things to put in the lobbies of his theaters.” If so, his interest soon grew deeply personal. Mastbaum “had a kind of epiphany about Rodin,” explains Rub. “He saw some of his work and fell head over heels in love with it. It’s not rare, but it is unusual for a collector to collect the work of a single artist in such depth and to make such a study of the artist’s work. Mastbaum wanted to possess Rodin the same way he built his movie empire—from whole cloth, and in a very big way.”
Regardless of its origin, Mastbaum’s obsession is attracting both casual visitors and Rodin scholars alike to the Parkway. PMA officials hope to see the museum’s attendance climb by more than one-third this year, to more than 80,000 visitors. Gail Harrity, PMA president and chief operating officer, has spoken of making the Rodin Museum “not just an important cultural space, but also a true community space… an environment that encourages Philadelphia residents and out-of-town tourists to linger.” To that end, the museum is staging numerous events, including concerts by artists from the Curtis Institute of Music.
Along with the Barnes Foundation, the reborn Rodin Museum is enhancing Philadelphia’s already considerable reputation as a world center of art. Both museums play central roles in “With Art Philadelphia,” a city-sponsored campaign to attract visitors to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, “the most artistic mile in the country.” Thanks in part to the Rodin Museum, the Parkway is developing into this city’s true avenue of the arts, as its original designers planned it to be a century ago.
photography courtesy of philadelphia museum of art