0279 Gold on Blue in Philadelphia
Robert C. Smith and the Installation of the 'Portuguese Chapel' at the Samuel S. Fleisher Art Memorial
In 1957, American art historian Robert C. Smith was asked by Julius Zieget, Secretary and Treasurer of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA), to travel to Lisbon to purchase gilded woodcarved objects, sculptures and azulejos (hand painted tiles) to create a 'Portuguese chapel' within the Samuel S. Fleisher Art Memorial, established in the deconsecrated Church of the Evangelists in Philadelphia. This was the first time that Portuguese art pieces would leave Portugal with the specific aim of musealizing a chapel in a public space. Smith’s valuable contacts in Lisbon, namely with João Couto, then director of the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga (MNAA), led him to the antique dealers and private collectors that would eventually supply the objects he sought.
This essay explores and reflects upon the cultural and historical context surrounding the project, and looks into the commissioning, acquisition and installation of the chapel, a process that lasted from 1957 to 1960 (the chapel was inaugurated in 1961 by Luís Esteves Fernandes, then Portuguese ambassador to the US). Working from unpublished documents, namely Smith’s correspondence, the article also traces the fortune of the pieces purchased by Smith from the moment they were placed in the Fleisher Foundation chapel to the present.
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