“Courtly Treasures: The Collection of Thomas W. Evans, Surgeon Dentist to Napoleon III,” the latest exhibition on view at Penn’s Arthur Ross Gallery (ARG), brings together paintings, sculpture, furniture, and decorative objects once belonging to the royals of 19th century Europe that have not been displayed publicly for nearly half a century. And they come with a backstory that is unique to Penn.
Philadelphia native Thomas W. Evans was arguably the most famous dentist of his time. He served the royalty of Europe in the middle of the 19th century, notably Napoleon III and his wife, Empress Eugénie, whom he escorted in his carriage out of a rioting Paris in 1870 after the emperor was captured during the Franco-Prussian War.
In exchange for his services, royals frequently gifted Evans with art. He amassed an impressive collection, which he willed to Penn Dental Medicine upon his death in 1897.
Fast-forward to 2010. Penn Dental Dean Denis Kinane discovered that many pieces of the collection were languishing in storage, while others on display in the school were in need of restoration.
“I love history and I have a great respect for history,” Kinane says, “and I felt it would be beneficial to the school and the University to return this collection to its former glory.”
“From the moment I saw this collection I knew I wanted to do an exhibition about it,” says Marsden-Atlass.
With support from Kinane and the University as a whole, Marsden-Atlass and colleagues at the Office of the Curator inventoried, documented, and digitized the collection, and had many of the pieces conserved. The exhibition is aptly timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Dental School’s Evans Building and the launch this fall of the Evans Building Centennial Renaissance project, a major renovation of this historic structure.
The exhibit, which runs through Nov. 8, features more than 130 artworks displayed against crimson walls in a 19th-century salon style. Notable pieces include “Depart Incognito,” a painting that tells the story of Evans’ and Empress Eugénie’s escape from Paris, a Prometheus Vase fabricated by Minton, first displayed at the 1867 World’s Fair, and a silver and gold tankard of St. George slaying the dragon given to Evans by the Prince and Princess of Wales.
Admission to the ARG is free, as are many events such as docent tours and a monthly lunchtime lecture series, “12@12.” An audio tour is available on-site or online, and the exhibition catalog features essays by a number of Penn scholars, including Marsden-Atlass and Kinane.
“It’s been a labor of love for the last five years,” Marsden-Atlass says. “I think it’s a proud moment for Penn to have preserved and conserved this collection.”