Next up in our set Summer Staycations is a jewel in the heart of Independence National Historical Park. Leave Independence Hall for the first-timers and tourists, and head down Chestnut to the cool confines of the quiet portrait gallery inside Second Bank.
Hidden in plain sight, a block from Independence Hall is a remarkable collection of 18th century fine art portraits. Inside the William Strickland-designed Second Bank is a gallery that illuminates the lives of people in the 18th century who played a pivotal role in shaping the nation. It is a great escape amid the throngs visiting Independence National Historical Park.
When I first went looking for the Portrait Gallery, I walked right by it. I thought this grand building couldn’t possibly be the place that houses a fine art gallery. It took another pass to locate the small sign on the sidewalk that convinced me to finally climb to the entrance.
Up the Pennsylvania blue marble stairs and inside the beautiful Classical Revival building, the space invites visitors to travel slowly through the galleries and take time to understand the nuances of the material. But given its small size, the gallery also works well for casual visitors. I was lucky enough to tour the gallery with National Park Service museum curator Karie Diethorn.
What to know if you go:
Location: Second Bank, 420 Chestnut Street
Hours: Wednesday-Sunday from 10am -5pm
Admission: Free but visitors are encouraged to give to the donation box
Tours: Check Independence NHP events calendar.
The exhibit, “People of Independence,” features 185 paintings depicting political, military, and intellectual leaders from the years surrounding our nation’s founding. These portraits are interpreted as historical documents, offering a window into 18th century life. As you move through the galleries, you are viewing 18th century life through the lens that they viewed themselves. The portraits offer a portal into everyday life of a tumultuous time in history and the ideas that went on to shape America.
Second Bank itself is the perfect backdrop for the intimate exhibition. The Greek revival design is an architectural gem that is one of the best examples from the early 19th century, when classical revival was just taking off as the national style of the time. The interior walls still maintain the same blushing pink color as when they were first painted in 1824.
I found the central main gallery to be the most remarkable space. The barrel-vaulted ceiling creates an impressive volume that compliments the vast arrangement of portraits. In order to create a more intimate gallery experience, tall walls break up the large room into smaller manageable sections grouped by topics representing 18th century life such as science or business. Large blown up graphics of 18th century daily life are placed on partition walls as a contrast to the more static pieces. Portraits and busts are displayed at different angles and heights that create an intriguing inconsistency. There is always something to look at and read depending on your interest.
In the southern gallery, 84 paintings by Charles Willson Peale dominate the space. Peale was the foremost portraitist of his day and the current arrangement echoes the first public museum he opened in 1802 on the second floor of Independence Hall.
Peale’s original exhibition design had a hierarchical arrangement based on the complexity of different life forms – his fine portraits at the top, and dioramas of preserved animals in painted habitats below. The current exhibition strives to reinvent Peale’s Enlightenment approach to the world while weaving in a contemporary sense of doubt about the orderliness of the world beyond Peale’s gallery. Scenes of chaos are placed behind sheer panels to combat Peale’s vision, reminding visitors of the era’s volatility.
The Portrait Gallery at the 2nd Bank is an extraordinary and – it must be said well air-conditioned — retreat from the summer heat, that is well worth a visit. This is a place for those curious about what life in colonial Philadelphia was like, an opportunity to experience an incredible early 19th century building, and offers art lovers some rare treasures of American art.