What most Philadelphians don’t realize is how gorgeous Philadelphia looks when you’re rowing on the Schuylkill River at Boathouse Row. Artist and rower Joseph F. Sweeney has long appreciated that vista. Now, he has captured the latest iteration of Philadelphia’s skyline, with the new Comcast building pointing skyward. (What is that tall tower anyway? Maybe giving the finger to Amazon for not coming here?)
Joe’s oil painting is currently on display at Gross-McCleaf Gallery in Philadelphia, a dramatic 2-feet tall by more than 6-feet wide. Maybe you’re still looking for a fabulous Christmas present?
Joe loves painting in “plein air” or outdoors, as WHYY has documented.
But Boathouse Row is one of his favorites, a love reinforced by his membership in the fabulous Undine Barge Club, whose building was designed by architect Frank Furness in 1882. (Furness also designed the Academy of Fine Arts, where Joe teaches classes.)
His connection to the Row started when he was a baby, Joe says. “As I kid, we lived in Fairmount and I got rolled in a coach along the river.” His Uncle Spike was caretaker at the Fairmount boat club and his Uncle Jack was a rower. But it was only while a student at the Philadelphia College of Art that he truly began appreciating the city’s iconic spot for its open space and greenery.
“I set up an easel between Undine and Girls [Philadelphia Girls Rowing Club] and Jack Oster [Undine’s former president] came up to see what I was doing. He invited me upstairs to paint from the balcony and said, ‘Anytime you want to come, I’ll open the door.’ ”
With that invitation, Joe took up rowing recreationally and has been Undine’s “artist in residence” ever since. He’s also painted hundreds of paintings of the Row, despite some skepticism on the part of a gallery owner at first.
“In 1980, I started showing at McCleaf,” he said. “Estelle Gross said, ‘I don’t know if we can sell these. I’ll put it by the door.’ A guy came in the first week and bought it, and she said, ‘Do you have any more?'” Joe says there’s something about Boathouse Row – the rowers, the history – that resonates with people.
“People say that when they’re traveling back from a trip and see the Row, they know they’re home.”
Joe Sweeney goes back and forth between painting farmscapes in Central Pennsylvania to the wide open skies of the Jersey shore but he always comes back to the Row, enchanted by the elegance and movement of the rowers against the city he loves.