Soon after I made my way through the doors and into the bustling atrium of Penn Dental Medicine (no people in these photos, as I did not want to compromise dental patients’ privacy), I knew I was in the right place. No, I was not there for a cleaning. I was there for the art and artifacts.
I had originally planned to see an exhibition about one of the school’s benefactors and a poet. I found it in a small case in the library on the second floor. (The library also had a wonderful lighting fixture in it.)
The exhibition was fine, but I was more entranced by the portraits, decorative arts, busts, and…artifacts associated with Napoléon III?…lining the walls throughout the 1913 building.
What’s the story?
It turns out that the dentist in the exhibition I read about online and the individual responsible for accumulating at least some of the fine and decorative art on display was Thomas W. Evans (1824-1897), an early Penn Dental benefactor. Born in West Philadelphia, Evans went to Europe to become famous. He succeeded, caring for the oral hygiene of European royalty, including Napoléon III and Eugénie. Indeed, the painting below commemorates Empress Eugénie’s escape from a populist uprising using Evans’s carriage.
The carriage, displayed proudly in the School’s atrium after being on loan to museums in France, is the crown jewel of a practically royal collection. (Check out a photo of the carriage on exhibit in the original gallery here.)
Nearby, visitors can also view the shawl Eugénie used to keep warm while en route to her destination.
The Evans collection of fine and decorative art, accumulated in Europe, had been exhibited gallery-style from 1915 until 1967 when the Museum closed. A recent renovation and expansion of the building spurred renewed interest in the collection and a 2015 exhibition, Courtly Treasures: The Collection of Thomas W. Evans, Surgeon Dentist to Napoleon III. The exhibition is down, but you can still see some highlights throughout the building.
Evans himself was a curator well before he accumulated a collection that included artifacts such as a sapphire, diamond, and gold ring, an 1822 silver compote, and this 1855 portrait of Napoléon I (just to name a few items in his collection). Evans had been responsible for organizing exhibitions about health and medicine at international expositions in the mid-late nineteenth century. These exhibitions, it seems, were populated with artifacts from his own collection.
Where are they?
The donation of the collection with which he is associated today–the “courtly treasures”–to the Thomas W. Evans Museum and Institute Society (Penn Dental) was not a smooth one, though. The University of Pennsylvania holds six boxes of papers associated with litigation of the estate. The legal battles concluded in 1914, seventeen years after Evans’ death.
To learn more about the history of dentistry in Philadelphia, check out this Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia article.