Editor's note: The following essay, with notes, is printed with permission of the Woodmere Art Museum and the author. The essay was included in the 32 page illustrated 2002 catalogue titled Central High School Alumni Exhibition, ISBN 1-888008-11-3, pp. 6-12. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you have interest in obtaining a copy of the catalogue, please contact the Woodmere Art Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:


For "Our Age and Country:" Nineteenth-Century Art Education at Central High School

by Amy B. Werbel


Central High School was founded in 1836 as "the crowning glory" of Pennsylvania's public school system, "the worthy apex to a noble pyramid," and the first "high" school in the state.[l] Because city voters only reluctantly had been convinced of the need for a high school, the curriculum was carefully and publicly geared to the needs of taxpayers. Central's founders made an especially concerted effort to avoid educating students in the manner of private academies of the day, where classical languages and literature were of paramount importance. Fourteen years after the school's founding, principal John Hart was able to happily report:

It was feared that the gift of intellectual culture would be accompanied with a disrelish for anything but intellectual employment, if not with dislike of employment altogether. Such, without doubt, is often the result of education, misdirected. The tendency in this respect of the course of instruction prescribed by the Controllers, would seem to be of the most encouraging kind. The alumni of the High School are already found scattered through the city in almost every walk of useful industry.[2]

Art education at Central High School, no less than any other facet of the curriculum, assured that students were well prepared to take their part in furthering Philadelphia's "useful industries."

In satisfying public demands for useful education, every facet of the Central curriculum was focused on providing needed skills and meeting the "requirements of our age and country."[3] Professor William Vogdes wrote in the preface to the school mathematics textbook:

It has been the design of the author, in the following pages, to compile a work adapted, by its practical character, to the wants of those of the rising generation, who, not being able to command a collegiate education, are fitting themselves to fill useful stations in society as mechanics, merchants, &c.[4]

The inclusion of drawing in the four-year program might seem surprising given the school's emphasis on useful education, but in fact some type of drawing course was included in every semester: first and second year students practiced writing and drawing; third and fourth year students learned perspective, mechanical drawing and ornamental writing.

Two men may be credited with the prominence given art education at Central High School: Rembrandt Peale, first Professor of Drawing and Writing at Central and author of its drawing textbook Graphics, and Alexander Dallas Bache, the school's first principal. Together, Peale and Bache influenced generations of Central graduates, including such prominent future artists as Joseph Boggs Beale, Thomas Eakins and William Trost Richards.


Twin Sisters: Drawing and Writing in the Central High School Curriculum

Rembrandt Peale, son of Charles Willson Peale, was principally responsible for formulating Central High School's first art education program. Students used Peale's drawing text Graphics in the first two years of the program, along with his student George Becker's Penmanship. Both Peale and Becker were followers of the Swiss educator Johann Pestalozzi, who theorized that writing and drawing skills required similar intellectual and physical transactions.[5] On the frontispiece of his manual, Becker inscribed, in finest hand:

Writing and Drawing are Twin Sisters and Handmaid to the Useful and Ornamental Arts.[6]

In keeping with this belief, Peale's and Becker's texts presented calligraphy and drawing in tandem, demonstrating the skills necessary to make controlled, fluid marks, design the composition of a sheet, and measure lines and forms accurately. Drawing subjects included letters and numbers in various scripts, simple objects such as barrels, and more advanced subjects including houses, picturesque landscapes and the human form.

Peale's more advanced chapter on perspective is a good indication of the methods that influenced many of Central High School's artist-graduates. Leading into this section, Peale first advised students to "practice from Well-known Objects," urging that anything could be used as a subject for the draftsman -- from books to shoes. That general advice given, Peale next showed students how to judge distances proportionally by observing the "similarity of angles" in a given scene. This technique promised to obviate the need for mathematical perspective (presumably the subject of the chapter), or indeed any method of judging distances beyond that of a well-trained eye.

Peale advised students to imagine a sheet of glass between the viewer's eye and the scene:

it will readily appear, by looking through one eye, that on this plane triangles may be drawn, connecting any given points in the scene; in the imitation of which, by the proportions of similar triangles, the distances between the objects may be accurately defined.[7]

Using this technique, students could draw complicated scenes, such as an Italianate landscape, using only the eye primed to search for geometrical forms where they existed. This skill followed on Peale's early, Pestalozzi-inspired practice sections, in which students copied lines, halving or quartering them by eye, and matched diagonal slopes and geometric forms. After completing this training, students would presumably be able to merely look at a complicated scene and quickly reduce it to essential lines and forms that could be transferred to paper. Most artist-graduates of Central High School, like Peale, never adopted any more methodical means of translating three dimensions to two.

Beyond finding geometries in the observed world, Peale also advised students to use a geometrical grid of squares superimposed on existing images to make artistic efforts more easily transferable. 'Copying by Squares.' as Peale termed it, was another well-tried shop method. As Peale noted, a picture divided into squares could be transferred piece by piece, to numbered, "corresponding squares on a larger or smaller scale," rendering a "mathematically exact" copy.[8] Thomas Eakins was to use this technique extensively in his later career.

Peale devoted only two grudging pages to actually teaching perspective, one to the perspective of a barrel, and another to the perspective grid that maps space volumetrically. The example of a bucket showed students how to use a ground plan of an object, seen in two dimensions from above, to find points of transfer to a three-dimensional, or perspective, view. Although Peale's diagram shows students how to find the receding staves of the bucket, he gives no advice about describing the elliptical rim of the barrel, nor its base. Peale provides not even a glimpse of perspective theory to explain the translation from ground plan to foreshortened view, deferring that "Other rules of perspective may be learned from the Treatises."[9]

Although Peale planned a supplement on mathematical perspective, it was never completed, and nineteenth-century students most likely moved on to treatises by authors such as George Childs, James Harding, Samuel Prout, John Gadsby Chapman and John Varley. In 1861, when new graduates Thomas Eakins and Joseph Boggs Beale competed for the post of Professor of Drawing, Writing and Bookkeeping, they each completed a rigorous slate of perspectival problems drawn from these texts. Beale won the post by an advantage of 6.5 points, leaving Thomas Eakins free to pursue a career as Philadelphia's most esteemed portrait painter.[10]

Even if some of Peale's methods were superseded by later texts, he proffered more than specific skills to Central High School students such as Beale and Eakins. Peale also provided students with a rationale for improving their drawing skills. Peale was among the most vociferous of the nation's "art crusaders," arguing that drawing instruction would raise the aesthetic standards of the country and provide skilled draftsmen for a host of industries. In agriculture, better sketching and planning could establish more efficient crop layouts. In manufacturing, American industries would more effectively compete in design and production with European goods.[11]

Another prominent "crusader," John Gadsby Chapman wrote in his popular American Drawing Book that art

gives strength to the arm of the mechanic, and taste and skill to the producer, not only of the embellishments, but actual necessities of life. From the anvil of the smith and the workbench of the joiner, to the manufacturer of the most costly productions of ornamental art, it is ever at hand with its powerful aid, in strengthening invention and execution, and qualifying the mind and hand to design and produce whatever the wants and tastes of society may require.[12]

Peale was an early advocate of such utilitarian arguments for artistic study. He stressed its application in teaching writing, geography, accurate proportion and "the fundamentals of arithmetic."[13] Becker, in a similar vein, included chapters on bookkeeping and accounting in his text on penmanship.

In addition to proving its general applicability, teaching drawing as a form of writing helped to co-opt the utilitarian perception of writing for the more artistic discipline. Using these arguments, training in drawing seemed as important within the framework of 'useful arts and industries' as surveying and mathematics. Peale undoubtedly promoted the inclusion of drawing in the Central curriculum by advancing such utilitarian motives.[14] He had another agenda as well, however, which was to justify the pursuit of art for its own sake.

Peale suggested in his 1854 edition of Graphics, that "[the arts] furnish one of the most innocent and inoffensive amusements." Perhaps sensing the fragility of this argument in an educational moment so attuned to 'useful knowledge,' he followed "But if the purposes of utility to which they are applicable be considered, their importance in society will be even more manifest."[15]

A year later, Peale suggested a more forthright rationale for fine art to the sympathetic readers of The Crayon:

It was a portrait painter, Robert Fulton, that gave us the power of steam navigation. It was a portrait painter, S.F.B. Morse, that devised the magic electric telegraph. It was a portrait painter, C.W. Peale, that first made porcelain teeth for himself and a few friends. And I, though a portrait painter, lighted the first city with gas. This is no boast, but may be accepted as an atonement for the practice of a luxurious Art, which is now beginning to be appreciated.[16]

Statements such as this proffered a strategy that also was embodied in the Central drawing curriculum. Since mechanical drawing occupied the highest position in the curriculum, all other linear modes could be seen as building towards this discipline. Drawing, and even more 'luxurious' forms of art, could be practiced as useful arts in themselves, or they could be allowed as "an atonement" if the individual contributed technological advancements to society in addition or as a result of his art. In either case, the Central High School artist-graduate would be a useful, patriotic, and productive member of society. John Hart bemoaned that Peale's Graphics had not been adopted by the elementary public schools, despite Peale's concerted efforts:

Could the plan have succeeded, and could the entire youthful population of that great city, which is pre-eminently a mechanical and manufacturing center, have grown up with a familiar practiced skill in the use of the pencil in ordinary off-hand drawing, there can be no question that it would have added untold millions to the general wealth.[17]

Hart's quote is good indication of the importance given drawing by Central High School's administrators at mid-century.


Alexander Dallas Bache and Mechanical Drawing: Training Students for the Nation's Great Army of Industry

While Rembrandt Peale's influence at Central High School was limited to the art education program, Alexander Dallas Bache is credited with oversight of the inception and overall structure of the school. Bache had researched pedagogy both in Europe and the United States as President of Girard College prior to his appointment as Central High School's first principal.[18] Bache also was influenced by his own educational experiences. A grandson of Benjamin Franklin, Bache was instructed as a child at a private academy in the suburbs of Philadelphia. The typical curriculum in private academies at the time emphasized rigorous training in classical literature along with proficiency in Greek and Latin. Bache was the product of another type of institution as well, however, and it was these later experiences that the educator drew upon in devising the Central program. At the age of fifteen, Bache left his private academy for West Point and the Army Corps of Engineers.[19] At West Point, students studied modern languages rather than Greek or Latin, and emphasis was placed on engineering, mathematics and the 'natural sciences,' as opposed to philosophy and literature. The curriculum and disciplinary code were designed carefully around the new nation's need for useful citizens -- not only as soldiers, but also as engineers, surveyors and scientists.[20] Central High School's drawing curriculum was to follow West Point's in its inclusion of mechanical drawing. Bache was so enamored of this subject in fact that he translated the text used for the program himself -- A Course of Linear Drawing, Applied to the Drawing of Machinery by A. Cornu, a French civil engineer.

Cornu's text, published in 1842 in Philadelphia, much more clearly embodied Central's pedagogical ideals in the nineteenth century than artistic treatises by such authors as Harding and Varley, who helped amateurs draw 'picturesque' landscapes and cottages. Cornu, in contrast, taught students a mathematical system that provided them with rudimentary skills as mechanical draftsmen. Cornu described his text, "adopted in the Royal Schools of France," as

an eminently practical book, methodically divided, intended to bring within the reach of every capacity, the principles of the composition of machines, &c., and by means of fixed rules, to render easy the representation of objects in general, . . . .[21]

Cornu began his discussion with "preliminary principles of geometry," describing the properties of lines, angles and circles. Students were next instructed in the use of the principal tools of mechanical drawing: compasses, squares, sectors and scales, with which they could measure and divide the geometrical and mechanical forms in the more advanced lessons.

Throughout these exercises, Cornu emphasized measurement as the chief tool of the draftsman. Unlike Peale, who taught his students to eyeball proportional divisions of lines by practicing freeform halving and quartering. Cornu provided the following systematic instruction in applying the measurement of objects to representation:

In order to make a drawing of an object, of one-fourth its real size, assume one paper for the length of the foot, the fourth of its length, or 12/4 = 3 inches, and on this new length make subdivisions corresponding with those of the foot....Thus, to reduce an object to the 1/4th, 1/5th, 1/6th, 1/10th, &c., it is sufficient to divide the principal measure (the foot) by the numbers by which the reduction is to be made, 4, 5, 6, 10, &c., and then to subdivide the quotient into parts corresponding to those of the foot.[22]

Like most other course subjects at Central High School, Cornu's drawing manual imparted a specific, "useful," art to students.

The clear purpose of calculation in this case was to train students to draw objects that might then be manufactured. Measuring skills were most essential to this profession. Andrew White described the ideal education of students in mechanical drawing as follows:

They are taught mathematics in all their relations to mechanics. In one room they go on with the mathematical and mechanical drawing of machinery, in another with free-hand drawing;....The purpose is to send out every year a body of young men...who cannot merely calculate the size of parts of a machine, but who can draw it after they have calculated it, and make it after they have drawn it. These are the men whom our country sorely needs to complete the organization of its great army of industry.[23]

These stages of work required three calculated translations -- from idea or object, to drawing, and then to manufactured object. If measurements were askew in any of these stages, the end result would be a failure. The point of drawing in Cornu's text was "to represent objects in all points of view, with exact proportions and dimensions, so as to enable us to execute them, which is the chief design of this book."[24]

Considering Central High School's sworn mission to produce Philadelphians well prepared to be of service to their city, it should come as no surprise that mechanical drawing was included as the capstone skill in the art curriculum. In the mid-nineteenth century, American reliance on European industrial design was a significant problem which art crusaders sought to remedy.

The taxpaying manufacturers of Philadelphia must have been particularly happy to see their dollars spent training future mechanical draftsmen. The city's machine tool industry was the most productive in the nation in 1860, accounting for over three million dollars of gross product in that year, far in excess of New York.[25] Philadelphia was also world-renowned for the quality of its manufactures.

In the manufacture of Machine Tools, Philadelphia has a peculiar and deserved celebrity. Iron being comparatively cheap, by reason of proximity to the sources of its production, the Philadelphia builders use it freely in the beds and other important parts of their tools, which are consequently remarkable for solidity and freedom from injurious vibration when in active use. The weight of metal, however, is not so much their distinguishing characteristic as the excellence of the workmanship.[26]

The workmanship in Philadelphia's machine shops was esteemed especially for the fine measurement used in designing its products, and for the design and manufacture of machines using standard components that could be easily replaced when worn.[27] This ability to design relied, in part, on the accuracy of drawings like those created by Central High School's nineteenth-century students.

In sum, it should be noted that the combination of Peale's "off-hand" mode of drawing and Bache's mathematical mode provided a range of artistic skills to future graduates: William Trost Richards learned to judge spatial relationships with the eye alone; Thomas Eakins left Central High School with all the skills necessary to produce the complex perspectival compositions for which he is famous. Central High School's artist-graduates received not only a comprehensive education as draftsmen before graduation, but also were convinced through the efforts of its Professors, textbooks and administrators, that art was a useful and indeed patriotic occupation. This conviction must have been an important motivational tool in an age so attuned to the "requirements of the age and nation."



1. Principal John Hart used these phrases to describe Central's place in the city's public school system. See Franklin Spencer Edmonds, History of the Central High School of Philadelphia (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1902) 27.

2. John Hart, "Annual Report of the Controllers of the Public Schools" (1850) 118. Quoted in David E Labaree, The Making of An American High School: The Credentials Market and the Central High School of Philadelphia, 1838-1939 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1988) 20.

3. Changes in the curriculum were occasionally made to accommodate the job market. For example, in 1860, Principal Nicholas Maguire replaced phonography with bookkeeping. He wrote: "In re-arranging the course of study, the objects aimed at have been, to make it practically useful and thorough, . . . that it may be adapted to the requirements of our age and country,'tramelled by no antiquated usage, controlled by no time-worn precedent,' and to afford an education from which the student may derive an immediate applicate advantage, or which may form the basis for a more elaborate and finished, yet useful structure." Nicholas H. Maguire, "Report of the Principal of the Central High School for the 42d and 43d Terms" (Philadelphia: Board of Controllers, 1860) 130-31.

4. William Vogdes, Vogdes' Mensuration (Philadelphia: E.C. & J. Biddle, 1857) 3.

5. Pestalozzi also believed that drawing would assist the child in acquiring mathematical skills, "It must be easier to understand the properties of a circle, for instance, or of a square, for one who has not only met with these figures occasionally, but who is already acquainted with the manner in which they are formed." Johann Pestalozzi, Letters on Early Education (London, 1827) 103.

6. George Becker, Becker's Ornamental Penmanship (Philadelphia, 1854) 1.

7. Rembrandt Peale, Graphics: A Manual of Drawing and Writing, revised edition (Philadelphia, 1854) 64.

8. Peale, Graphics (1854) 65.

9. Peale, Graphics (1854) 67-68.

10. For additional sources on this subject, see Elizabeth Johns, "Drawing Education at Central High School and Its Impact on Thomas Eakins," Winterthur Portfolio 15, no. 2 (Summer, 1980) 139-49; and Amy B. Werbel, "Perspective in the Life and Art of Thomas Eakins" (Ph.D. Dissertation, Yale University, 1996).

11. Peter Marzio, "The Art Crusade: An Analysis of American Drawing Manuals 1820-1860," Smithsonian Studies in History and Technology 34 (1976) 12.

12. John Gadsby Chapman, The American Drawing-Book (New York: J.S. Redfield, 1858) 4.

13. Marzio 21.

14. Writing from Philadelphia to Daniel Lippincott in 1841, Peale noted: ":..by beginning with the High School here, in which with 250 boys I have fully listed [sic] the efficacy of my system." Rembrandt Peale to Daniel Lippincott 1841 (copy owned by John Mahey) quoted in Marzio 21.

15. Rembrandt Peale, Graphics (1854) 52.

16. Rembrandt Peale, "Reminiscences," The Crayon I (13 June 1855) 370. Quote and footnote text in Marzio 22.

17. Edmonds 108.

18. Bache's two-year tour of European schools as President of Girard College resulted in his publication of a massive tome titled Report on Education in Europe. See Merle M. Odgers, Alexander Dallas Bache, Scientist and Educator (Philadelphia University of Pennsylvania Press, 1947) 99.

19. Odgers 7-8. Odgers notes that Bache probably graduated from the Clermont Academy or Seminary, at the time under the direction of John Sanderson, whom Bache later termed his "beloved preceptor." Sanderson was an aggressive proponent of classical education who upheld the cause in debate with educational reformers.

20. Bache also had seen and admired this type of curriculum during a two-year tour of Europe's schools as President of Girard College. This trip resulted in his publication of a massive tome titled Report on Education in Europe. See Odgers 99.

21. A. Cornu, A Course of Linear Drawing, trans. by Alexander D. Bache (Philadelphia: A.S. Barnes, 1842) 3.

22. Cornu 5.

23. Andrew D. White, "Scientific and Industrial Education in the United States" Popular Science Monthly 26 (June, 1874) 181-82.

24. Cornu 6.

25. J. Leander Bishop, A History of American Manufactures from 1608 to 1860, vol. III (Philadelphia, 1868) 15-16, 119-22.

26. Bishop 28.

27. This system of manufacturing parts that were so accurate they could replace those in other machines came to be known as 'the American system of manufacturing.' It particularly distinguished American weapons and clock-making operations at mid-century.


About the author:

Dr. Amy Werbel is a distinguished scholar and Associate Professor of Fine Arts at St. Michael's College, Colchester, VT.

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