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

Two centuries ago, on Thursday, Decem­ber 26, 1805, seventy-one individuals gathered at the State House (now Independence Hall) to formally establish an art institution for Philadelphia. Meetings throughout the summer had led to the drafting of a charter, formation of a board of directors, and the collection of funds for a building. By the day after Christmas, a professional calligraph­er had inscribed the text of the charter on a large piece of parchment. As the signers approached the table to endorse the document, and thus create the Pennsylvania Acad­emy of the Fine Arts, did they speculate about its future? Would they be astonished to know that two hundred years later the institution they created that day would occupy a position of prime importance in American art, in 2005 celebrating the beginning of its third century with a re-creation of the signing ceremony in that hallowed location?

If he founders of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts could be present for the current bicentennial celebrations, and if they could see beyond some obvious changes, they would recognize an institution with much in common with the one they established: the institution’s mission, governance by a lay board, and the approach to teaching and exhibiting the visual arts. The differences they might perceive would be surprising, but are ultimately ones of accident and social development: the size and complexity of all aspects of the institution, the location and number of its properties, specifics of curriculum and styles in art, and the exclusive focus on American art.

The individual who would have been most pleased to learn about both the continu­ing traditions and the new developments would be none other than Charles Willson Peale, the indefatigable painter and entrepreneur, and the driving force in the founding of the Pennsylvania Academy. His wide-ranging interests and zeal to advance knowl­edge and culture in the city had prompted him to establish a short-lived art organization, the Columbianum, as well as Peale’s Museum, where displays included both portraits of leading Americans and natural history specimens.

Working with the Academy’s first president, George Clymer, who some thirty years earlier had signed the Declaration of Independence, Peale had the institution well under way within a few years. A building was open by 1806, a collection of plaster casts was purchased as the centerpiece of a growing trove of artworks, and funds solicited from donors were in hand (although it is not known if Thomas Jefferson, whose acquaintance with Peale stemmed from their mutual interest in natural history, ever did send the fifty dollars he promised).

In the early decades the board, anchored by Rembrandt Peale and William Rush, the only other artists besides the elder Peale to sign the charter, established an exhibition program which brought scores of paintings and sculptures by both European and American artists to the city. They inaugurated an exhibiting tradition that, even after its focus was concentrated exclusively on American art, has brought well more than one thousand exhibitions to the city (see “The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts: An Ideal and a Symbol” by Jeanette M. Toohey, Spring 1998).

The board also undertook the development of the Academy’s collection by secur­ing the gift of Gilbert Stuart’s George Washington (Lansdowne Portrait), and mortgaging the building to purchase Washington Allston’s Dead Man Restored to Life by Touching the Bones of the Prophet Elisha, as well as Benjamin West’s huge and, at the time, frightening painting Death on the Pale Horse. In the early years, Peale and the board also provided limited but standard school facilities. These consisted chiefly of keeping the cast collection and exhibition galleries open for students whose primary method of study was copying, under the supervision of master artists such as Thomas Sully and Denis Volozan.

The Pennsylvania Academy celebrated its fiftieth anniversary at the stock­holders meeting of June 2, 1856, the anniversary of the approval of its charter by the Commonwealth. It had survived near-dissolution from financial constraints in the 1830s, and a fire in 1845 that devastated the plaster casts and some works of art, as well as destroying all but the foundations of the building. West’s Death on the Pale Horse, measuring more than fourteen by twenty-five feet, was saved when firefighters cut the canvas from its frame and lugged the rolled-up painting to safety. By the time it issued its 1855 annual report, the Academy boasted a new building, 12,000 visitors annually, 64 students, 150 library books and, most notably, the absence of any serious financial encumbrance.

The stockholders discussed a major problem during the fiftieth anniversary celebration – the pressing need for more space and better facilities. The Academy’s premises on Chestnut Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Streets, had been in the heart of the city when the institution was formed. By 1870, with the city rapidly expanding westward, and with its second building in dilapidated condition, Academy officials agreed to erect a new structure in a different part of the city. In 1876, a flamboyant building designed by Frank Furness and George Hewitt opened at Broad and Cherry Streets. No longer a classical temple clad in white marble, the new building was a wildly eclectic mix of historical styles, full of vibrant color and exotic ornament. Visitors to the Centennial Exhibition in Fairmount Park flocked to see it, and it survives today, a superb example of the eclectic architectural style known as Victorian Gothic. After the crowds of 1876, the Academy’s management felt the need to promote attendance and attract new audiences. They presented, beginning in 1879, concerts by the Germania Orchestra, performances attended by large audiences for the next two decades.

In the late 1870s, with the eye-catching new building open and the collection expanded to more than three hundred works of art and two hundred plaster casts, the Academy’s school was reorganized by Thomas Eakins (see “And Who is Eakins?” by David Pacchioli, Fall 1989) and board member Fairman Rogers. The newer, more progressive plan introduced a structured course progression and a program of graduated skill levels. Although Eakins was a presence on the faculty for only ten years, he influenced hundreds of American artists through his emphasis on naturalism, the study of the human body using the nude model, and the use of photography as a tool for artists (see “The Many Faces of Thomas Eakins” by Cheryl Leibold, Spring 1991). The modern school program flourished, attracting students whose names dominate the history of American art, including Cecilia Beaux, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Robert Henri, John Sloan, William Glackens, and Maxfield Parrish. Important instructors who followed Eakins included Thomas Anshutz, William Merritt Chase, and Beaux (see “Artistic Ambitions: Cecilia Beaux in Philadelphia” by Tara Leigh Tappert, Winter 1996).

In the 1890s, the Academy inaugurated a period of exciting and innovative exhibi­tions that brought unprecedented national attention and renown to the institution. In 1892, at its sixty-second annual exhibition, visitors saw the first major museum exhibi­tion of works by American impressionist painters. At this time the juried annuals attracted large audiences who came to see the most recent creations of preeminent American artists. Sales at these exhibitions were strong and the prizes awarded became prestigious symbols of achievement. Academy purchases from the annuals enhanced and enlarged the permanent collection which today, at eighteen hundred paintings, more than three hundred sculptures, and twelve thousand works on paper, provides a visual encyclopedia of the best art America has produced. Winslow Homer’s Fox Hunt is just one of many pieces acquired from the annuals; the Academy purchased the striking 1893 oil on canvas with income from its Joseph E. Temple Fund in 1894. Other major acquisitions include The Wave by Alexander Harrison, Old King Cole by Maxfield Parrish, Lady with a White Shawl by William Merritt Chase, New England Woman by Cecelia Beaux, and The Cello Player by Thomas Eakins.

In 1893, the Pennsylvania Academy awarded its first gold medal for achievement, an award established by board member John H. Converse, to Daniel Ridgway Knight, a student at the Academy from 1858 to 1861, who spent most of his career in France. Over the course of the next century, the Academy presented the award to more than forty of America’s greatest artists, among them Edwin Austin Abbey in 1897, James A. McNeil] Whistler in 1902, John Singer Sargent in 1903, Mary Cassatt in 1914 (see “Pro­file” in the spring 2005 edition), Childe Hassam in 1920, Carl Paul Jennewein in 1939, Francis Speight in 1961, and Andrew Wyeth in 1966.

In 1905, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts celebrated its centennial year in grand fashion with a banquet in the galleries. A special train carried attendees from New York, and twenty-one descendants of the 1805 charter signers were special guests. A large exhibition featured 753 paintings and sculptures by more than 350 artists whose careers had touched the Academy in some way. At the sumptuous din­ner, 250 guests dined on deep-sea oysters, quail on toast, and Philadelphia-style terrapin, while listening to William Merritt Chase, the dean of American painters, who proclaimed the Academy “the most important art institution in this country today.”

Throughout the twentieth century, the Pennsylvania Academy faced new and unprecedented challenges while striving to retain its position within the American art world. Younger, New York-based institutions began to attract progressive faculty, exhibitors, and students who might earlier have worked at the Academy. In addition, Philadelphia audiences found modern art difficult to accept, and contemporary forces gravitated away from the city. Beginning in 1930, the newly built Philadelphia Muse­um of Art presented significant competition for both attendance and patronage.

During the early decades of the century however, the Academy presented several groundbreaking exhibitions that promoted modern art. In the first of these, in 1908, a group of artists, including five who had studied at the Academy, showed their scenes of urban life in an exhibition dubbed “The Eight.” Their ostensible leader, Robert Henri, had spent four years at the Academy school studying under Thomas Anshutz, Hugh Henny Breckenridge, and Henry McCarter, along with fellow group members John Sloan, William Glackens, and Everett Shinn.

In 1920, an exhibition entitled “Paintings and Drawings by Representative Modern Masters” showed works of European avant-garde artists such as Picasso, Matisse, and Cezanne. It was followed in 1921 by “Paintings and Drawings Showing the Later Ten­dencies in Art,” organized by Alfred Stieglitz, Arthur B. Carles, Joseph Stella, and Thomas Hart Benton. This exhibition gave the Academy the distinction of being the first museum to exhibit work by American modernists, both abstract and figurative, such as Charles Demuth, Morton Scharnberg, Arthur B. Carles, and Charles Sheeler, all of whom attended the Academy school in the earlier part of the century. Two years later, part of the collection of controversial and contentious collector Albert C. Barnes, of Merion, was shown at the Academy, an event that has achieved almost mythic status in American art. When Barnes saw the strongly negative response to the show, he retreated to his Montgomery County estate, disdaining from then on to admit the public or to loan any of his works. Reviews of the 1921 and 1923 exhibitions reinforced Philadelphia’s growing reputation as an old-fashioned city with conservative tastes in art.

The Academy’s school flourished in the first half of the twentieth century. One of the most famous and long-lived traditions in the Academy school was inaugurated in 1902 when the parents of a former student, William Emlen Cresson, bequeathed the Acade­my a significant endowment for a scholarship enabling students to spend a summer studying in Europe. More than one thousand Cresson Awards have allowed students to travel and then, by requirement, return to share their experiences with fellow students during the fourth year of study. Enrollment increased in these years to several hundred students, and new programs were added, such as an illustration major, which commenced in 1910 and lasted until the early 1950s. In addition, a pioneering cooperative program with the University of Pennsylvania was established in 1929 presenting Academy students with the opportunity to take traditional academic courses and earn a bachelor’s of fine arts degree.

In 1955, the one hundred-fiftieth anniversary celebration centered around a special exhibition of works by twenty-five artists whose careers were closely associated with the Pennsylvania Academy. The exhibition was circulated to wide acclaim in six European cities under the auspices of the U.S. Information Agency. The anniversary celebration also included a dinner for the mayor and members of city council, a symposium and lecture series, musical concerts, a feature in Life, a commemorative postage stamp, and a window display in Gimbel Brothers, a popular cen­ter-city department store.

The school again expanded in the 1960s, incorporating new programs such as a printmaking major and foundry techniques in sculpture. Need­ing more facilities than were available in the historic Furness-Hewitt building, the Academy acquired its first satellite building, the former Belgravia Hotel located on Chestnut Street, which provided considerably more classroom space and scores of private studios for students. By the early 1990s the Academy had added a Masters of Fine Arts program, expanding its opportunities to study art at an advanced level.

In the last half of the twentieth century, the Academy presented more and larger special exhibitions than ever before, including several group shows featuring the work of the new American realist artists, as well as blockbuster one-artist shows such as the 1966 Andrew Wyeth exhibition which brought 173,000 visitors through the doors. Other important and popular exhibitions were a 1985 Red Grooms retrospective; “Electronic Superhighway,” Nam Jun Paik’s 1991 extravaganza of discarded televisions, computer chips, cassette tapes, and vinyl records; and exhibitions of works by Horace Pippin in 1994 (see “Pippin” by Judith E. Stein, Spring 1994) and Maxfield Parrish in 1999.

Although the annual juried exhibitions ended in 1969, the victim not of a lack of popularity but of the tremendous financial and logistical challenges they presented, important acquisitions took place in their last two decades. The Academy acquired works of art by artists Stuart Davis, Jack Levine, Isamu Noguchi, Alexander Calder, and Richard Diebenkom through the annuals. The annual student exhibition, held each spring, became a big draw, attracting buyers and patronage from each year’s graduates.

Major gifts and special acquisitions during this period immeasurably enhanced the reputation of the Academy Collection. The 1979 donation of seven work by Pippin, and the 1961 gift of ten paintings by Jacob Eichholtz set the stage for even greater acquisitions in the 1980s and early 1990s. In 1985, the acquisition of Charles Bregler’s Thomas Eakins Collection brought a huge trove of previously unknown photographs,manuscripts, and drawings by Eakins to the Academy. This collection and the insights about the artist it has provided have the Academy the premier repository of primary materials about Eakins. Also in the mid-1980s, several thousand preparatory sketches and drawings by Violet Oakley provided the Academy with an invaluable study collection for her life and career (see “Violet Oakley, Lady Mural Painter” by Patricia Likos, Fall 1988). In 1994, works by Robert Motherwell were acquired from the artist’s estate, giving the Academy an important core collection for the American abstract expressionist pioneer.

A few years before the Academy celebrated its one hundred and seventy-fifth anniversary in 1978, which featured a festive block party on Broad Street, the Furness-Hewitt building was entered in the National Register of Historic Places. (The building has since been declared a National Historic Landmark.) After an extensive two-years restoration project to return its interior public spaces – including galleries and the grand staircase – back to their vibrant 1876 splendor, the building reopened in time for the celebration of the nation’s Bicentennial. As its two hundredth anniversary is celebrated throughout 2005, the Academy has seized the opportunity to move the school and administrative offices to a new location immediately adjacent to the Furness­ Hewitt building. With the addition of an eleven-story building at the northwest corner of Broad and Cherry streets, the Academy has a bona-fide fine arts campus in which the school and the museum work closely together to provide unprecedented opportuni­ties. The acquisition of the building was made possible by a fifteen million dollar grant from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. With a gift of five million dollars from the Dorrance H. Hamilton 1999 Charitable Trust, the new building has been named in honor of the late Samuel M. V. Hamilton, the Academy’s former board president.

In a landmark event for the Academy, in 2001 – capping a tumultuous period of negotiations – one of the most famous works of American visual culture, Maxfield Par­rish’s monumental glass mosaic Dream Garden, executed by Louis Comfort Tiffany and his Tiffany Studios, was added to the Academy’s holdings. The Dream Garden graces the lobby of the former headquarters of The Ladies Home Journal and The Saturday Evening Post, the Curtis Center at Sixth and Chestnut Streets. The gift, made possible by The Pew Charitable Trusts and the beneficiaries of the John W. Merriam Estate, allowed this stunning work to remain in Philadelphia in perpetuity. Important acquisitions in the last five years have set the stage for the unveiling of a new and revitalized Academy. Gifts of ten masterpieces of American art bequeathed by Meyer P. and Vivian 0. Potamk.in, and the Harold A. and Anne R. Sorgenti Collection of African American Art, have enriched the collection.

Throughout 2005, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts will celebrate its two hundredth anniversary with a variety of events, culminating on December 26, 2005, with a reenactment of the charter signing at Independence Hall. The spirit of the founders remains evident and the mission the same as stated in the charter they signed in 1805: “to promote the cultivation of the Fine Arts, in the United States of America … and otherwise assisting the Stud­ies and exciting the efforts of the artists, gradually to unfold, enlighten and invigorate the talents of our Countrymen.”

As it embarks on its third century of teaching, exhibiting, and nurturing American artists, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts can take pride not only in the gifts of art it has given to the nation, but also in the vision it holds for the future. Building on its venerable heritage, the Pennsylvania Academy continues to spawn artists whose talents enrich and enhance the world with their masterpieces and masterworks. The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts celebrates its bicentennial by looking to the future as it welcomes students who will follow in the footsteps of the great painters and sculptors who, for a time, called the institution home.

 

Bicentennial Events

Throughout 2005, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, home to America’s artists for two hundred years, will celebrate its bicentennial with exhibitions, events, and special activities. Continuing through Sunday, April 10, “In Full View: American Painting and Sculpture (1720-2005)” is the largest and most compre­hensive showing of the Academy’s collections in history (see “Current and Coming,” Winter 2005). “In Full View,” which includes paintings spanning every era of American art, reveals the institution’s pivotal role as both the nation’s oldest art museum and school of fine arts.

The “104th Annual Student Exhibition” and the “13th Annual Graduate Thesis Exhi­bition” will open Saturday, May 7, at the Academy’s new Samuel M.V. Hamilton Building. Held for the first time in the con­temporary spaces of the Hamilton Building, the exhibitions will introduce the most recent work of advanced and award-win­ning students – the future of American art. More than one thousand paintings, sculp­tures, prints, and works on paper will be shown in the exhibits, which will continue through Sunday, May 29.

Opening Saturday, June 25, “Light, Line and Color: American Works on Paper (1765-2005)” showcases delicate master­works from the Pennsylvania Academy’s collection of more than twelve thousand works on paper. These works are permitted to see the light of day for only six weeks each year. The exhibition, which closes Sun­day, September 4, offers a rare look at the works of influential artists, such as John Sin­gleton Copley, John James Audubon, Winslow Homer, Mary Cassatt, Andrew Wyeth, Claes Oldenberg, and Andy Warhol.

Through the generosity of private collec­tors, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts will assemble iconic American works of art rarely, if ever, seen by the public in a landmark show entitled “In Private Hands: 200 Years of American Painting.” On view from Saturday, October 1, through Sunday, January 8, 2006, “In Private Hands” pro­vides a perspective on two centuries of American art in masterworks representing a wide range of styles and genres.

 

For Further Reading

Danly, Susan. Light, Air, and Color: American Impressionist Paintings from the Collec­tion of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1990.

Telling Tales: Nineteenth-Century Narrative Painting from the Collection of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, 1991.

Danly, Susan, and Cheryl Leibold. Eakins and the Photograph: Works by Thomas Eakins and His Circle in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, 1994.

Foster, Kathleen A., and Cheryl Leibold. Writing About Eakins: The Manuscripts in Charles Bregler’s Thomas Eakins Collection. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, 1989.

James-Gadzinski, Susan, and Mary Mullen Cunningham. American Sculpture in the Muse­um of American Art of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Philadelphia: Museum of American Art of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, 1997.

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

____. The American Paintings in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts: An Illustrated Checklist. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1989.

 

Cheryl Leibold has served as the archivist of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts since 1986. She wrote, with Susan Danly, Eakins and the Photograph: Works by Thomas Eakins and His Circle in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1994), winner of the 1995 Ruth Emery Award presented by the Victorian Society of America, and with Kathleen A. Foster, Writing About Eakins: The Manuscripts in Charles Bregler’s Thomas Eakins Collection (1989). She has written on topics relating to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts for a number of publications. Her article entitled “The Many Faces of Thomas Eakins” appeared in the Spring 1991 edition of Pennsylvania Heritage.