The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts is the first school of fine arts and museum in the United States. Its origin dates from 1791, when Charles Willson Peale initiated efforts to organize a school for the fine arts in Philadelphia. In 1795, the first exhibition of painting in Philadelphia was held in Pennsylvania’s old state house, known today as Independence Hall.
In March of 1805, seventy-one public-spirited citizens met in Independence Hall to prepare the charter that created a new organization “to promote the cultivation of the Fine Arts in the United States of America [and to] enlighten and invigorate the talents of our countrymen.” Artists associated with the early years of the Academy include William Rush, Thomas Sully and Rembrandt Peale (son of the founder Charles Willson Peale).
The study of antique casts was initiated when the school opened, and the practice of drawing from the Academy’s famous collection of casts is still an important part of the School’s programs. Drawing from the live model was introduced in 1812 and began a tradition that is an essential part of the curriculum to this day. During the late 19th century, the anatomy program at the Academy was the most comprehensive of any art school in the world. The renowned American artist Thomas Eakins taught classes in which advanced students dissected human cadavers and animal carcasses.
The Thomas Eakins Era
Thomas Eakins was first a student at the Academy and then a faculty member. Eakins was appointed director of the school in 1882. In the mid-1800s, the Academy’s faculty included the painters Christian Schussele and Thomas Anshutz, and at the end of the century Robert Vonnoh, Thomas Hovenden, William Merritt Chase and Cecilia Beaux. In 1891, the Academy started the practice of awarding competitive annual awards for travel to Europe. The practice continues today, with the famous Cresson, Schiedt, Ware, Von Hess and Women’s Board Travel Awards given each year on a competitive basis during the Annual Student Exhibition. Since its origin, over a thousand travel scholarships have been awarded to outstanding students in the Academy’s school.
Famous Faculty and Alumni
The institution has been associated with new directions in American art; “Ashcan School” painters and modernists included such Academy alumni as John Sloan, Robert Henri, Arthur B. Carles, John Marin, Charles Demuth, Charles Sheeler and Morton Schamberg. More recently, the School was associated with the revival of realist and figurative work in the 1960s and '70s, as exemplified by faculty members Sidney Goodman and Ben Kamihira.
Many of the influential artists who studied at PAFA have gone on to become members of the faculty. Each generation of artists teaching and exhibiting here continues to share experience and expertise, creating an unbroken line of artistic innovation that stretches from 1805 to the present.
The teaching methods and curriculum at the Academy were originally modeled on the academic and atelier systems of the historic Academies of Europe. More recently, there are parallels with the Julian Academy in Paris, the Chase School and the Art Students League in New York. The Academy’s traditional atelier-based methods of art instruction have been adapted to the credit hour and course load model required in contemporary education. The school was accredited in 1979 to give a four-year Certificate. A Master of Fine Arts degree program was begun in 1997 and made the Academy a degree-granting institution. The Academy has maintained a long relationship with the University of Pennsylvania, which allows students to take studio credits at the Academy in pursuit of a BFA degree from Penn’s College of General Studies. The origins of the joint Penn/Academy program date to 1922, when Penn first offered a degree known as the Bachelor of Fine Arts in Education. In 2008, the Academy introduced its own undergraduate Bachelor of Fine Arts degree program, and with it, PAFA’s first program of liberal arts studies.
Cecilia Beaux, Mary Cassatt, Maxfield Parrish, Charles Sheeler, John Sloan, Charles Demuth, Arthur B. Carles, architect Louis I. Kahn and filmmaker David Lynch are among those who studied at PAFA.
A period of rapid change, from 1999 to the present, has involved the acquisition and development of the almost 300,000-square-foot Hamilton Building, formerly the Federal Building (and built as the Gomery-Schwarz Moror Company). The Samuel M. V. Hamilton Building has been made into a world-class school and museum facility. The completion of the Lenfest Plaza in the fall of 2011 made PAFA a unified campus for the first time in its long history. With the addition of its degree and liberal arts offerings, PAFA continues to build on its long history of providing a unique series of educational programs in one institution: the collections and educational activities of a world-class museum of American art, combined with the degree and certificate programs of the school of fine arts.
Academy Mission Statement
The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) is a national leader in fine arts education that brings together artists and the public through exceptional teaching programs, a world-class collection of American art, major exhibitions and widely accessible public programs.
Academy Vision Statement
A rare combination of a world-class museum and school of fine arts, PAFA will be a defining voice for education in the evolving traditions and cultural diversity of the fine arts in America.