Drawing Basics: A History of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts--art schoolIn this online exclusive, read more about the history of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts as a supplement to the spring 2008 Drawing magazine feature article.

by Tina Tammaro

In 1791 artist Charles Willson Peale began to gather a group of prominent citizens in the Philadelphia area to form what would become the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. From the outset, the institution had a broad vision and complex mission. On December 6th, 1805, 71 public-spirited citizens prepared a petition for the incorporation of The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. It stated that, in part, "the object of this Association is to promote the cultivation of the fine arts in the United States of America … by occasionally conferring moderate but honorable premiums, and otherwise assisting the Studies and exciting the efforts of the Artist gradually to unfold, enlighten and invigorate the talents of our Countrymen." The majority of the founders were not artists, but they considered the arts crucial to the moral health and well-being of the city and the nation. They felt that art depended on freedom of thought and opinion, and as such, it was an expression of the new democratic spirit of America.

Training the history painters of the future was among the Academy director's highest priorities. In his view, history painting taught moral lessons through its monumental proportions, its subject matter, and the expressiveness of its figures. The curriculum was based on European academies and students became proficient draftsmen by drawing from casts of antique sculptures. Once the student mastered the casts they would progress to working from live models. In 1812 Dr. Nathaniel Chapman, who later was a founder of the American Medical Association and its first president, began to teach artistic anatomy, a course that is still an important part of the curriculum today.

The institution was founded as a combination museum and school. It was America's first true art museum and its first president, George Clymer, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. The original roster of academicians included such artists as William Rush, Thomas Sully, Rembrandt Peale, Gilbert Stuart, Washington Allston, Thomas Birch, John Singleton Copley, and Benjamin West.

These men felt that the idealism of the Greeks was the goal of art. They made art not to display their skills or render a likeness but to produce an object whose loveliness would gratify the viewer. Beauty was their goal and that meant controlled pleasure, never vulgar or too dramatic. If their subjects were tragic the effect was softened under the control of beauty. In the words of the Enlightenment art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the ancients avoided shocking contortions. "Images of rage and despair deformed none of their works," Winckelmann wrote. "Anger was subdued into severity. Jupiter hurling thunder was, in the verse of the poet, furious with indignation; in the marble of the sculptor he was only grave."

Toward the end of the 19th century the attitude shifted. The Academy hired one of its own graduates to teach, even though his ideas and approaches to art are quite radical for America at this time. Thomas Eakins began teaching at the school in 1876 and was its director from 1882 to 1886. An important and at times controversial figure at the school, Eakins was appointed professor of drawing and painting in 1879, and his work ushered in a new era in American painting. His subjects–doctors, athletes, scientists, and artists–were more modern and timely than the academic painters. He maintained a philosophical affinity with its founding principles but introduced innovative teaching methods. Anatomy classes became more technical and detailed, probably the most comprehensive of any art school's in the world. Eakins was certain that everything that can be learned from the original source should be. He felt that casts of antiquities were not realistic because they were many times removed from reality; the casts gave the student an aesthetic to work from, but they only presented one way of seeing–and a very idealized way at that.

Eakins was considered a radical. He preferred that the students learn to draw and paint at the same time. The traditional approach until this time was to work for many years from casts and sculpture, perfecting your drawing skills before ever picking up a brush. Line drawing was given precedence over modeling the form. Eakins wanted his students to dive into the painted sketch, paint the form from the start. He stressed that "the brush is a more powerful and rapid tool than the point or stump. Very, often, practically, before the student has had time to get his broadest masses of light and shade with either of these, he has forgotten what he is after. … Still the main thing that the brush secures is the instant grasp of the grand construction of a figure. There are no lines in nature … there are only form and color.

"Practically, copying Phidias endlessly dulls and deadens a student's impulse and observation," Eakins wrote. "He gets to fancying that all nature is run in the Greek mold, that he must arrange his model in certain classic attitudes and paint its individuality out of it; he becomes prejudiced, and his work rigid and formal. The beginner can at the very outset get more from the living model in a given time than from study of the antique in twice that period. That at least has been my own experience; and all my observation confirms it." This was a new approach in America at this time and was similar to the approach artists such as Manet were stressing in France.

Eakins' advanced students dissected human and animal cadavers and cast sections in plaster for future reference. He believed students would draw better if they constructed figures first in three dimensions, and he often borrowed animals from the zoo for modeling classes. "But no one dissects to quicken his eye for, or his delight in, beauty," he wrote. "He dissects simply to increase his knowledge of how beautiful objects are put together to the end that he may be able to imitate them."

Eakins was a demanding and precise teacher who had devoted students but also great enemies, as anyone with very strong opinions will. He was dismissed or resigned in 1886 after disagreement with board over his use of nude models. (There are a number of stories about what really happened.) William Merritt Chase and Cecilia Beaux succeeded him on the faculty in 1896.

In the early 1800s the school used to drape the plaster casts of statuary on Mondays and called it Ladies' Day. As early as 1844, the board of directors of the Academy resolved that women artists "would have exclusive use of the statue gallery for professional purposes for the space of three months during the hours of 10 to 11AM on Monday, Wednesday and Friday." During Eakins' years as a director the students painted from the nude from nine in the morning to noon and then from one until dark. In 1869 a separate class for ladies was established, and by the 1880s women students were on entirely equal footing with men. Some of the great female painters of the day were trained and taught there, such as, Mary Cassatt, Cecilia Beaux, and Susan Macdowell (Eakin's student and future wife). After he left, a number of teachers fought for many of his ideals and within a few years there were mixed life-drawing classes and models without hoods and all were completely nude.

The museum is known for its 19th- and 20th-century American paintings, sculptures, and works on paper. It also houses important materials for the study of American art history, museums, and art training. The current museum building opened in 1876 and is a National Historic Landmark. From 1811-1969 the Academy also organized important annual art exhibitions from which significant acquisitions were acquired for the museum. Until 1968 the Academy asked well-known artists of established reputation to select work by contemporary American artists to be exhibited. No restrictions were placed on the exercise of their judgment. Over the years artists as diverse as Childe Hassam, Theodore Robinson, Edmund Tarbell, Winslow Homer, and Mary Cassatt participated in this process. The Academy also has a tradition of accepting African-American artists that goes back to the 19th century, when Henry Tanner attended.

In 1892 John Sloan, Robert Henri, William Glackens and Maxfield Parrish all attended the Academy. Later, Al Capp enrolled, as did Charles Demuth, John Marin, Alice Neel, the architect Louis Kahn, and the filmmaker David Lynch. Contemporary heavy hitters such as Vincent DeSiderio and Bo Bartlett also studied there.

Many of The Eight, also known as the Ashcan School, studied with Eakins and Thomas Anshutz, including Henri, Sloan, Glackens, George Luks, Everett Shinn. They captured the everyday life of urban America, and a landmark Ashcan School exhibition held there in 1908 presented their view to the public.

In 1921 Alfred Stieglitz, Thomas Hart Benton, Joseph Stella, and the Academy instructor Arthur B. Carles were asked to select and hang another landmark exhibition, titled Later Tendencies in Art. The show included the work of such artists as Sloan, Demuth, and Marin, as well as Man Ray, Georgia O'Keeffe, Arthur Dove, and Edward Steichen.

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