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Home | Articles | The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts at 200

by Robert Cozzolino

Fig. 1: Interior of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia. Designed in 1876 by Frank Furness and George Hewitt.
Few public museums in the world can claim the longevity of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts: The nation’s oldest combined museum and school of fine art turns 200 this year. Throughout its history, the Academy has upheld the aims of its founders and has responded to tumultuous changes in the art world with resilience and innovation. The Academy’s reputation has been alternately progressive and conservative, depending on the surrounding cultural climate and an ever-shifting community of instructors, students, and curators.
Since 1876, the Academy’s collections have been housed in a stunning building designed by Frank Furness (1839–1912) and George Hewitt (1840–1916) that was awarded National Historic Landmark status in 1975 (Fig. 1). As the Academy enters its third century, it has expanded into the adjacent Samuel M. V. Hamilton Building, which provides 300,000 square feet of classroom, studio, and gallery space.
In the eighteenth century, many viewed Philadelphia—in the words of the expatriate artist Benjamin West (1738–1820)—as the “Athens of the Western world.”1 The Academy developed in a sophisticated urban climate that had already cultivated important cultural organizations and institutions, including the Philadelphia Library (founded in 1731); American Philosophical Society (1743); University of Pennsylvania (1751); Anti-Slavery Society (1775); and Charles Willson Peale’s museum of portraits, natural history, and curiosities (1786).

Fig. 2: Winslow Homer (1836–1910), The Fox Hunt, 1893. Oil on canvas. 38 x 68 1/2 inches. Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; Joseph E. Temple Fund, 1894.4.
Of the Academy’s seventy-one founders, three were artists: Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827), his son Rembrandt (1778– 1860), and the sculptor William Rush (1756–1833). In calling the new institution an “academy,” they clarified their vision of a total art experience—to provide high quality education for artists and the public by displaying and collecting excellent examples of painting, sculpture, drawing, and printmaking. Modeled after London’s Royal Academy of Arts, the curriculum was derived from an academic tradition that had roots in the Italian Renaissance. Instruction emphasized drawing from life; in particular the human body. These intertwined principles continue to guide the aims of the Academy’s museum and school.2 Scores of America’s most innovative and influential artists have trained or taught at the Academy: Faculty members have included Thomas Sully, Thomas Eakins, William Merritt Chase, and Cecilia Beaux; Mary Cassatt, Robert Henri, John Marin, and Charles Demuth are but a handful of the Academy’s famous alumni. Its celebrated history and consistently high standards continue to attract talented domestic and international artists today. Current faculty and students maintain the Academy’s tradition of rigorous studio training while engaging directly with the growing permanent collection.

Fig. 3: Marsden Hartley (1877–1943), Flower Abstraction, 1914. Oil on canvas with painted wood frame. 42 3/8 x 34 7/8 inches (image). Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; The Vivian O. and Meyer P. Potamkin Collection, bequest of Vivian O. Potamkin, 2003.1.4.
The Academy’s earliest collections included a group of plaster casts from Greek and Roman statues selected in part by French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741–1828) in 1806. These copies fulfilled two aspirations of the founders: well-made facsimiles of renowned antique sculptures provided a sense of art history to Americans who had not been abroad and gave artists access to fine figures from which to work. Within the next few decades the Academy had acquired some of its most important paintings. It purchased Washington Allston’s (1779–1843) The Dead Man Restored to Life by Touching the Bones of the Prophet Elisha (1811–13) in 1816. Benjamin West’s massive grand manner
allegory Death on the Pale Horse (1817) was acquired twenty years later; it remains the dramatic centerpiece of the Academy’s nineteenth-century collection.
The Academy purchased several important objects from its series of annual exhibitions surveying contemporary art (1811–1968). Under managing director Harrison S. Morris (1856–1948), the nation’s first professional arts administrator, the Academy acquired Winslow Homer’s (1836–1910) The Fox Hunt (1893; Fig. 2). Through Morris’s efforts, “the Annual” became for many years the most prestigious and daring showcase for new American art. Morris also repaired relations between his friend Thomas Eakins (1844–1916) and the Academy which had been ruptured since Eakins was forced to resign from teaching in 1886 for using a nude male model in the women’s drawing class. Morris’s influence led to the purchase of Eakins’s The Cello Player (1896) in 1897.3

Fig. 4: Betye Saar (b. 1926), Blackbird, 2002. Mixed-media assemblage and collage (double sided). 22 3/8 x 23 1/4 x 2 3/4 inches. Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; Henry D. Gilpin Fund, 2004.6
During the early decades of the twentieth century, the Academy benefited from the presence of three faculty members who were associated with avant-garde circles and worked in modernist styles: Henry McCarter (1864–1942), Arthur B. Carles (1882–1952), and Hugh Breckenridge (1870–1937). Under their influence the Academy presented several modernist exhibitions, including a 1921 survey selected by a committee that included the work of Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946).4
Despite these developments, the Academy earned a conservative reputation as the twentieth century progressed, often purchasing conservative work out of its annual exhibitions and passing on art by Jackson Pollock (1912–1956) and others associated with postwar abstraction. Although this direction deprived the collection of non-objective art by the avant-garde, the Academy acquired excellent paintings by many postwar figural artists who employed experimental methods. Recent gifts have considerably strengthened the Academy’s holdings of early American modernism (Fig. 3), and in 1978 the Academy inaugurated the Morris Gallery contemporary art exhibition program, which has been prescient in its support of new talent (Fig. 4).
The events and programs surrounding the Academy’s bicentennial will afford a wonderful opportunity to review the diverse collecting and teaching practices of this influential institution. Among the exhibitions is Light, Line, and Color, which draws from the Academy’s works on paper collection, remarkably rich in the entire history of American art. Approximately 200 of the Academy’s more than 12,000 drawings, watercolors, and prints will be on view from June 25 through September 4, 2005. A special section of the exhibition will be devoted to instruction at the Academy; another will focus on artists’ sketchbooks.

Programs celebrating the Academy’s 200th anniversary continue into 2006. For more information, call 215.972.7600, or visit www.pafa.org.

Robert Cozzolino, Assistant Curator at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, is organizing the exhibition Light, Line and Color.

1 Benjamin West to the Pennsylvania Academy, September 18, 1805; archives
of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia.
2 For detailed essays on the Academy’s multifaceted history, see Frank J. Goodyear
et al., In This Academy: The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1805–1976 (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1976) and Mark Hain
et al., Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1805–2005: 200 Years of Excellence (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 2005).
3 Eakins painted Morris in 1896; the portrait entered the Academy’s collection in 2000.
4 Sylvia Yount and Elizabeth Johns, To Be Modern: American Encounters with Cezanne and Company (Philadelphia: Museum of American Art of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1996).

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