The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts: An Ideal and a Symbol

Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

By 1805, the year the Pennsylvania Acad­emy of the Fine Arts was founded, Phila­delphia had achieved a large measure of political, social and economic stability. It had been the nation’s capital and contin­ued to thrive as a center of banking and commerce. The largest city in the United States at the opening of the nineteenth century, it was arguably the center of culture, with Boston its closest rival.

The seventy-one leading citizens who founded the Pennsylvania Academy, in­cluding George Clymer, Jo­seph Hopkinson, Richard Rush and W. S. and Charles Biddle, considered the arts crucial to the moral health and well-being of the city and the nation. For them, support and enjoyment of the arts were necessary to counterbalance the heated political climate and the frantic pace of business. Because they fervently be­lieved that art depended on freedom of thought and opin­ion, they saw it, too, as an expression of democratic spirit. Furthermore, they feared that, without guidance and instruction, Americans would forfeit the opportunity to develop an art of their own and would settle, instead, for the servile imitation of Euro­pean masters. With fewer hardships and the growth of personal fortunes after the Revolutionary War, Philadel­phia’s city fathers sought an appropriate channel for the funds and energies of its citi­zens. Commentators of the period saw the founding of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts as a way to preserve the pure artistic sensibilities of the new nation. Early exhibi­tions featured the work of America’s most important, albeit expatriate, history painter Benjamin West. In 1806, Robert Fulton, the engi­neer, inventor and friend of West’s family, encouraged the Pennsylvania Academy to purchase West’s work. Unfor­tunately, the youth of the institution, as well as the fi­nancial strain created by its first building project, pre­vented the directors from acting on Fulton’s advice. A year later, Fulton generously lent his own collection, includ­ing several of West’s paintings, to the Pennsylvania Academy for its first exhibition. It was unanimously praised; West, although living abroad, was celebrated as an American genius of “the highest order” and an example for young artists.

To exhibit and acquire his­tory paintings and to educate the history painters of the future were the Academy directors’ highest priorities. To them, history painting taught moral lessons through its monumental proportions, its subject matter based on the Bible and historical annals, and the expressiveness of its figures. Their first important purchases were Washington Allston’s The Dead Man Re­stored to Life by Touching the Bones of the Prophet Elisha (1811-13), purchased in 1816, and Benjamin West’s Death on a Pale Horse (1817), acquired in 1836. Concurrently, they designed the curriculum of the Acad­emy’s school based on those of European academies; for, despite the founders’ desire to depart from European tastes and values, they looked to Europe for their standards in art education. Students thus became proficient draftsmen by drawing from casts of an­tique statues. The casts, sent to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1805 through the young Nicholas Biddle, gave students an op­portunity to draw the human figure frozen in action, as well as in repose. Once they had mastered this, the students progressed to drawing from live models. Under the tute­lage of John J. Barralet, Denis Volozan and four volunteers, students drew the animate human form in classes jointly sponsored by the Pennsylva­nia Academy of the Fine Arts and the Society of Artists. This training was supplemented by classes in artistic anatomy, first taught in 1812 by Dr. Nathaniel Chapman, later a founder of the American Medical Associa­tion, as well as its first presi­dent. The study of anatomy continued throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and is no less impor­tant to the school’s curriculum today than it was then.

By the 1830s, the combina­tion of the museum’s collec­tion, the annual exhibitions and the school was successful in attracting promising stu­dents, such as George Caleb Bingham, and gifted artists, such as John Sartain, to Phila­delphia and to the Pennsylva­nia Academy of the Fine Arts. Sartain arrived in 1830 with the intention of moving on to New York. Soon, however, he was convinced by Thomas Sully and John Neagle, then instruc­tors at the school, that greater fame and fortune awaited him in Philadelphia. To substanti­ate their claim, they arranged several commissions for him. He was engaged by artists Thomas Doughty and John Neagle to engrave their paint­ings, and by publisher Henry Carey to engrave a painting in his collection. Within weeks, Sartain was courted by Lancas­ter County artist Jacob Eich­holtz, lithographer and entrepreneur Cephas G. Childs and Landscape painter Joshua Shaw. The talented portrait and genre painter Henry Inman was lured away from New York in a similar fashion.

In 1845, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts suffered a disastrous fire that destroyed much of its cast collection and a group of Euro­pean paintings. West’s Death on a Pale Horse escaped rela­tively unharmed, thanks to intrepid volunteer firemen who rescued the painting by cutting it from its already singed stretcher. The fire proved to be little more than a temporary setback; new quar­ters were erected, new casts were acquired and the institu­tion continued to flourish.

A decade later, The Crayon, a New York art journal, hailed the Pennsylvania Academy as “the most conspicuous and successful Art institution in the country.” Its annual exhibi­tions were growing in size, both in the number of artists participating and the number of works exhibited. They at­tracted nationally recognized artists working in Philadelphia-Peter F. Rother­mel, James Hamilton, Thomas Sully, John Neagle and Henry Inman – as well as those work­ing in New York, including Daniel Huntington, John F. Kensett, Thomas Cole, Fre­derick E. Church, William Sidney Mount and Asher B. Durand. Similarly, artists seek­ing national attention consid­ered a showing at the Pennsylvania Academy to be de rigueur. The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts hosted many works on na­tional tour, including Thomas Cole’s monumental suites, The Voyage of Life (1844) and Course of the Empire (1852); Hiram Powers’s controversial Greek Slave (1848); and Frederick E. Church’s Heart of the Andes (1860).

During the same period, the directors augmented the museum’s collection through donations and purchases, acquiring historical works, as well as the work of living art­ists. John Lewis Krimmel’s Fourth of July in Center Square (circa 1810-12), which includes depictions of William Rush’s sculpture Nymph and Bittern and Benjamin Latrobe’s hand­some Center Square Pump House, was purchased in 1845; Rush’s self portrait (circa 1822) was acquired in 1849; and works by the Peales, Antonio Canova, Horatio Greenough, Gilbert Stuart, Thomas Sully and Thomas Doughty were also acquired during the 1840s.

Although acquisitions con­tinued at a vigorous pace throughout the 1850s, those years have been accurately assessed as the decade of the school. Between 1854 and 1856, Peter F. Rothermel, chair­man of the Committee on Education, proposed the crea­tion of a “permanent system of art education for the Pennsyl­vania Academy of the Fine Arts.” This program would consist of a “regular body of professors” and “the annual distribution of prizes as re­wards of merit” to the students submitting the best work. The program was advertised as improved, but in fact did not substantially differ from the one established in 1811. Re­sponse to the new program was overwhelming. Applicants registering for classes included successful professionals as well as fledglings. William Trost Richards, lithographer Albert Newsam, Daniel Ridge­way Knight and Earl Shinn were registered on the rolls of the antique class. Paul Weber, one of Philadelphia’s foremost landscape painters, Christian Schussele, and John Sartain, all well established in their profession, were listed on the life class rolls. Schussele, like Rothermel, was among the most acclaimed artists of the era. With his appointment as professor of drawing and painting in 1868, the school entered one of its brightest eras. Sadly, he had been stricken with a degenerative palsy in 1863, making his ap­pointment largely symbolic, but it was both a tribute to his career and the school’s attempt to identify itself as being of the same caliber of the grand acad­emies of the continent. Edu­cated in Europe as a chromolithographer and painter, Schussele produced monumental history paintings in the tradition of Benjamin West and frequently exhibited his work in the institution’s annual exhibitions.

Less than two years after Schussele’s appointment, the directors decided to sell the institution’s cramped quarters on Eleventh and Chestnut streets. During the search for a new site, the museum’s collec­tion was stored in several fireproof vaults around the city and the school’s operations were all but discontinued. Students were able to draw from selected casts housed in temporary quarters; life draw­ing and painting were taught informally in studios and newly formed art dubs around the city. At the same time, the National Academy of Design in New York was drawing away potential students, in­cluding the future trompe l’oeil painter William Harnett and the future Academy instructor Thomas Anshutz.

The selection of the new site for the Pennsylvania Acad­emy was fraught with conflict and dissension among the members of its board of direc­tors. Heated discussions threatened their ability to act decisively as a group. There was strong support for a site near the Centennial fair­grounds in Fairmount Park and for one close to the city’s business district. When the decision was made to move the institution to the south­west corner of Broad and Cherry Streets some board members threatened to resign; a few actually did.

The choice of Frank Furness and George W. Hewitt as ar­chitects ensured that the Penn­sylvania Academy would continue to command atten­tion from the city’s residents and visitors. The designs con­veyed the institution’s self­-image: exuberant, curious and only vaguely historical. The Academy no longer stated its historic role by invoking classi­cal architecture – the institu­tion had a real, tangible and time-honored history of its own. By 1876, the year its third and newest building was erected, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts had functioned capably for nearly three-quarters of a century. In comparison, the Boston Mu­seum of Fine Arts and the Metropolitan Museum of Art were not founded until 1870 and the Art Institute of Chi­cago until 1879. Contemporary articles celebrated the Acad­emy’s coming of age, while waxing nostalgically about its passing youth.

Despite the reservations of several directors regarding its site, the new building served as a magnet for important exhibitors and promising stu­dents. The modern facilities and the novel building design intrigued art patrons, resulting in the donation of some of Philadelphia’s most famous and important collections. A few months after the opening of the new building, John S. Phillips, a connoisseur who resided at Tenth and Clinton streets, bequeathed about fifty thousand European and American prints and drawings to the museum – accompa­nied by a curator to take care of them’ They became the core of the museum’s collection of American prints and an impor­tant resource for students. With the acquisition of the collection of Joseph Harrison in 1878 and the bequest of Henry C. Carey in 1879, the museum broadened its collec­tion of historic works and received many of the pieces for which it is best known. John Vanderlyn’s Ariadne Asleep on the Island of Naxos (circa 1809- 1814), and Benjamin West’s Christ Rejected (circa 1814) and Penn’s Treaty with the Indians (1771) came to the Academy as part of Harrison’s collection. Carey’s collection brought Daniel Huntington’s Christiana in the Valley of Death (1842-44) and Mercy’s Dream (1841), Wil­liam Sidney Mount’s The Paint­er’s Triumph (1838) and works by Thomas Doughty, Henry Inman, Emmanuel Leutze, Gilbert Stuart and Thomas Sully.

With its spacious new facili­ties, the school succeeded in stem.ming the tide of students to the National Academy of Design, and both Harnett and Anshutz returned to the Penn­sylvania Academy. In describing the school in 1879, William C. Brownell wrote that the facilities “would not fail to excite the envy of New York art students.” He perceived, quite accurately, that the directors had equal regard for the needs of the school and the muse­um’s exhibitions.

One of the most important and controversial figures in the school at the time was Thomas Eakins. Appointed professor of drawing and painting in 1879, he served as director from 1882 to 1886. Eakins re­ceived his training at the Penn­sylvania Academy’s school under Christian Schussele from 1862 to 1866 and in Paris under Jean Leon Gerome and Leon Bonnat. As a result, he developed a style that was precise and realistic, yet not coldly academic. His work ushered in a new epoch in American painting. Eakins entered maturity as a painter during the country’s centen­nial celebration when self­-conscious definitions of American history and culture were being formulated. He looked for – and found – that definition in contemporary life by depicting the kinds of he­roes that continue to be vener­ated today: athletes (such as rower Max Schmitt), doctors and scientists (such as Samuel D. Gross and David Hayes Agnew) and artists (such as poet Walt Whitman).

As the driving force behind the school, Thomas Eakins maintained a philosophical affinity with its founding principles but introduced innova­tive teaching methods. Anatomy courses became increasingly technical and detailed. Students dissected human and animal cadavers and cast sections in plaster for future reference. Drawing from casts of antique statuary was discouraged in favor of “drawing in color,” using live models and oil paints. Eakins demanded that students pos­sess an immediate and accurate knowledge of their subjects and materials. These supposedly radical methods, combined with Eakins’s domi­neering personality, created devout disciples and fierce enemies, no doubt contribut­ing to his eventual dismissal in 1886. Gifted painters such as William Merritt Chase and Cecilia Beaux succeeded him on the faculty; but Eakins’s tenure continues to be the most celebrated in the school’s history. The administration recognized his importance to the Academy and to American art by awarding him the Tem­ple Gold Medal in 1904. With characteristic irreverence, he bicycled to the United States Mint and exchanged it for its cash value.

No less exciting than the school’s history during the last quarter of the nineteenth cen­tury were the museum’s exhi­bitions. The Academy continued to promote the work of living American art­ists, whether they resided in this country or abroad. Annual exhibitions – and special exhi­bitions such as American Artists at Home and in Europe, held in 1881 – often provided an artist’s first opportunity to be seen by the American public. Exem­plary works were purchased for the museum’s collection and then remained on view. Many works of this era reveal the artists’ explorations of impressionist principles of light, color and composition without slavishly imitating them. Artists Theodore Robin­son, Childe Hassam, Daniel Ridgway Knight and T. Alex­ander Harrison painted out of doors, depicting nature faith­fully and with a sense of im­mediacy. Others, including Edmund Tarbell, were strongly influenced by the composi­tions in Japanese prints. The Academy supported artists working in innovative media by hosting group exhibitions. The Philadelphia Society of Etchers, founded in 1882 by Peter Moran, Stephen Ferris and Joseph Pennell, and the Photographic Society of Phila­delphia, founded in 1860, might not have existed or flourished without the support of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, which pro­vided exhibition space and administrative personnel.

During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, out­standing artists and students were rewarded with the Acad­emy’s prestigious and newly created awards and medals. The Joseph E. Temple Gold Medal, established in 1880, was awarded for the best oil painting in the annual exhibi­tions. Winslow Homer cap­tured it in 1902, and Eakins two years later. The Academy Gold Medal of Honor, estab­lished in 1893, recognized an artist’s life achievement regard­less of any association with the institution. Mary Cassatt re­ceived this honor in 1914. Other annual prizes included the Lippincott Prize, estab­lished in 1894 for the best figurative oil, and the Mary Smith Prize, established in 1879 for the best oil painting by a woman artist. Student prizes, which continue to be awarded today, include the Stewardson Prize for Sculp­ture, established 1899, and the Cresson Prize, established in 1902. The Cresson Prize en­ables the recipient to travel abroad and provides a year of tuition-free study at the school.

In this century, the Pennsyl­vania Academy continued its support of contemporary art. It collaborated with The Eight on their landmark exhibition of 1908. Many of the group’s painters, including Robert Henri, John Sloan, William Glackens, George Luks, and Everett Shinn, had studied with Thomas Eakins and Thomas Anshutz. On their triumphant return to Philadel­phia, the group was hailed as the first generation of truly American painters. Educated on this side of the Atlantic, they remained aloof from European influences and cap­tured the essence of urban American life. Their rebellious spirit in dissenting from the conservative National Acad­emy of Design in New York was loosely compared to the American colonists’ revolt against the tyranny of British rule.

In mounting the landmark exhibition Later Tendencies in Art in 1921, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts strongly asserted its role in the making of American art his­tory. The works formed a sur­vey of the most important abstract and figurative trends of the previous two decades. They were selected and hung by Alfred Stieglitz, Thomas Hart Benton, Joseph Stella and Pennsylvania Academy in­structor Arthur B. Carles. Not surprisingly, they chose the work of artists in Stieglitz’s circle, including Georgia O’Keeffe, Man Ray, Edward Steichen, Arthur G. Dove and Arthur B. Davies. Among the Philadelphia artists were John Sloan, George Biddle, William Glackens, Arthur B. Carles, Charles Demuth, John Marin and Morton Schamberg. The spirit of pluralism has contin­ued throughout the twentieth century; both figurative and abstract works have been shown in the annual exhibi­tions and purchased for the permanent collection.

Within the past decade the Pennsylvania Academy has reaffirmed its commitment to the principles upon which it was founded. Students may study with some of the na­tion’s best artists and art teach­ers in a program which is staffed by permanent faculty and visiting critics. Each spring during the annual stu­dent exhibitions, outstanding artists receive awards for for­eign and domestic travel, tuition remission and cash prizes. Through its exhibition program the museum explores the history of American art and the Pennsylvania Acad­emy’s contribution to that history. Recent exhibitions included selections from the permanent collection of prints, drawing’s and sculpture, and major retrospectives of the work of William Rush (1982), Arthur B. Carles (1983), Red Grooms (1985) and Franz Kline (1986). The Academy con­tinues to encourage the work of living artists through pur­chases for the museum’s col­lection, through exhibitions in the Morris Gallery, which is devoted to the work of Phila­delphia artists, and by confer­ring the Academy’s Award of American Art, the successor to its coveted Gold Medal of Honor. Recipients of the Award of American Art – Frank Stella in 1985 and Nancy Graves in 1987 – are recognized for their contributions to the fine arts and supported in their future work. The award includes the purchase of the artist’s work for the permanent collection.

The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts is a unique institution in this country. When, in the few days be­tween Christmas, 1805, and New Year’s Day, 1806, the founders signed its charter, they could not have imagined the Academy’s long and illus­trious history, although they certainly hoped for it. in the nearly two centuries since its establishment, the Pennsylva­nia Academy of the Fine Arts has remained true to the prin­ciples on which it was founded. Through an active program of exhibitions, the acquisition of important works by both historical figures and living artists and its thriving school, the Academy has maintained a central role in the cultural life of Pennsylvania and the nation. The history of its museum and school reflects the changing trends in Ameri­can taste and art education so that, just as nearby indepen­dence Hall symbolizes the political ideals of this country, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts has come to sym­bolize the history of its art.


For Further Reading

Brown, Milton, et al. American Art: Painting, Sculpture, Ar­chitecture, Decorative Arts, Photography. New York: Harry M. Abrams, Inc., 1979.

McCoubrey, John W. American Art 1700-1960: Sources and Documents. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1965.

Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. In This Academy, The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1805-1976. Philadel­phia: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1976.

Philadelphia Museum of Art. Philadelphia: Three Centuries of American Art. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1976.

Taylor, Joshua C. America as Art. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1976.

Weigley, Russell F, ed. Philadel­phia: A 300-Year History. New York: W. W. Norton and Com­pany, 1982.


Jeanette M. Toohey has been a research associate for the depart­ment of prints and drawings at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts since 1985. She cur­rently manages and is contribut­ing author for the first comprehensive catalogue of the institution’s prints and drawings collection, which will be published in 1988. A 1980 graduate of the University of Rhode Island, she received her master’s degree in art history from Northwestern Uni­versity, where she is also a doc­toral candidate. Before joining the staff of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, she was an instructor at Northwestern Uni­versity and guest curator of pho­tography at the Evanston Art Center, Evanston, Illinois. The author wishes to acknowledge the important contributions of many Academy staff members, past and present, who have affected, re­corded, preserved and interpreted the Academy’s collection and its history. She would also like to thank Jacolyn A. Mott for her in­sightful editing of this manuscript.