Is it possible that Philadelphia is home to the greatest collection of Rodins this side of Paris -- thanks to a schnauzer?
According to Norma Brunswick, that is how the foundation for the Rodin Museum, which reopened last week after a three-year renovation, was laid.
The 79-year-old Rydal resident is the granddaughter of Jules Mastbaum, the movie mogul/philanthropist who single-handedly made the museum possible. She recounts the family lore that had Mastbaum serendipitously discovering the works of Auguste Rodin on a 1923 visit to the City of Light.
"The story that we got was that he was collecting dogs at the time, and he had no real interest in art," she said. He was raising schnauzers, and he went over to buy some dogs, and he fell in love with Rodin's work" when he passed by a shop displaying the artist's small bronze sculpture, Hand.
That fateful purchase led to a three-year period during which Mastbaum not only bought virtually every Rodin that is now on view at the museum (as well as some that he donated to the Musée Rodin in Paris), but also planned and gained approval for the museum that gracefully anchors the northwest edge of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
Although the name Jules Mastbaum may not be a household one today, he was most definitely boldface during his time, with his business and charity exploits making him the Philadelphia version of Bill Gates in the early part of the 20th century.
As the owner of Stanley Company of America, the largest operator of movie theaters in the country back then, Mastbaum was often featured in the business and society pages. Even his return from a 1924 vacation was cause for headlines and a welcome proclamation from Philadelphia Mayor W.¿Feeland Kendrick.
Mastbaum was just as well known for his many charitable efforts, including a stint as the first chair of the Building Fund of the city's central Jewish fundraising institution, a precursor to what is now the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. In fact, he was eulogized as "Philadelphia's best-loved philanthropist" at the time of his death in December 1926, shortly after the city of Philadelphia agreed to his vision of the museum.
That vision is in full view again, thanks to the efforts of a team of experts from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which administers the Rodin Museum.
Jenny Thompson, the Gloria and Jack Drosdick associate curator of the Rodin Museum (and European painting before 1900 at the PMA), has been involved with the restoration project since its inception. She spent a great deal of time researching Mastbaum. In addition to coming away with a greater appreciation of him, she said, she also came to the realization that following Mastbaum's death, the whole project could have been scuttled by his widow, Etta.
Instead, Etta not only honored his wishes, but she transferred the entire collection to the city, with the provision that the city assume responsibility for its maintenance, thus allowing the museum to open its doors to the public in 1929. "Etta Mastbaum was the unsung hero of this project," Thompson said. "It was really up to her to carry on with his wishes and to see the financial commitment to the museum through."
Patrice Hickox, another of Mastbaum's granddaughters, put it even more succinctly: "It was his dream, but ultimately, it was her money."
Thompson and her team's dedication can be seen as visitors pass the Meudon Gate, fronted by The Thinker, and walk through the French garden designed by landscape architect Jacques Gréber, who also conceived the overall design of the Parkway. Approaching the entrance to the museum proper and the always-powerful Gates of Hell, the impact of the renovations becomes readily apparent.
"The biggest changes that you will see at the Rodin are the things that we have reverted to look like they did in 1929," Thompson said. "The major sculptures are back in the garden --The Burghers of Calais on the east side, Adam and Eve in front of the building. We have also brought back the marble copy of The Kiss that Jules Mastbaum commissioned for the space. It looks very new but it's actually reverting to what it looked like."
That's not to say that there haven't been some 21st century upgrades. In addition to replacing the entire electrical system, there is WiFi throughout -- the better to deliver a customizable smartphone app that allows visitors to take their own guided tours, focusing on the pieces and periods that interest them the most as they wander through what museum CEO Timothy Rub refers to as "this jewel box" of a museum designed by Paul Cret. In addition to numerous other landmark buildings, Cret also designed the Barnes Foundation's original home in Merion at the same time he was working on the Rodin Museum.
Cret made sure the art was the thing -- in the main hall, suffused with natural light from a skylight that runs the length of the room; in the octagonal galleries that have been repainted in their original "Pompeian Red"; and in the ability to appreciate The Burghers of Calais from all angles en plain air -- as Thompson put it, "I was struck by the stagecraft. It's an extraordinary set piece, and I think it has much to do with Jules Mastbaum's flair for movie theaters with lavish interiors."
Eighty-three years later, he still knows how to put on a show.
The Rodin Museum, located at 22nd Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, is open Wednesday through Monday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, go to: www.rodinmuseum.org .