Editor's note: The following essay, without illustrations, was rekeyed and reprinted on April 5, 2004 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of American Arts Quarterly and Patrick Connors. The essay originally appeared in the Winter 2004 [Volume 21, Number 1] issue of American Arts Quarterly. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay please contact the author through http://www.connorsfinearts.com/



 

The Legacy of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

by Patrick Connors

 

"Vita brevis, longa ars,"
-- Latin translation of the Greek of Hippocrates [1]

 

In December 2005, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts will celebrate its 200th anniversary. Two hundred years is a long time, exceeding the biblical allotment of three score and ten years for an individual, and nearly as impressive a period for regimes, governments, and institutions, particularly art institutions, The Academy has remained a bastion of vital and valid aesthetics throughout its history and, with good fortune, will continue to be such a mainstay into the future. This article reflects on the rich experience offered to its students past and present, and presents a few speculations on the relation between modernist art instruction and the true mission of the Academy.

An art academy in the general sense is a particular kind of art school with a particular kind of mission: to promote the maturation of the individual and the development of thought as it pertains to the visual arts. To achieve this mission, an art academy must acknowledge legacy and consider the means whereby legacy is transmitted. An art academy attempts to be a conduit between the past and the present; it acknowledges the enormous contribution of those that went before and makes accessible that contribution to those in the present. No art "isms" can compete with classic studies of representationist art as a body of knowledge that is both teachable and learnable, and which can be built upon or expanded.

As with most art programs, the Academy currently offers a curriculum that is heavily weighted toward modernist instruction. By way of contrast, illusionist or representationist thought plays a relatively minor role in the curriculum, even as it functions as the keystone upon which the curriculum is based. In fact, the very presence of representationist training at the Academy is noteworthy; most artistic training today is carried out in the context of modernism. Few places function as true art academics because during the late nineteenth century and throughout most of the twentieth century the authority of modernism negated the intellectual curiosity necessary to ensure that other viewpoints were not destroyed. The expansiveness of a representationist point of view is demonstrated by the fact that it can tolerate and even be used to enhance other aesthetic-based, predominantly modernist, instruction. Conversely, such tolerance is rare in modernist education, which is hostile to the Renaissance ideas that form the core of representationist thought.

"An academy is an elongated shadow of a single man," wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, and this observation holds true for art academies.[2] The Academy has a complex and inspiring heritage, having generated the Philadelphia schools of painting, sculpture, and drawing. The correlation of instruction and aesthetic evolution has been a recurring phenomenon for nearly 200 years, begetting a strong network of supporters who have consciously striven to keep the Academy schools pertinent. Four distinct periods in the Academy's history are linked to four individuals who established the importance of representationist thought in the Academy curriculum: Charles Willson Peale in the early 1800s, Thomas Eakins in the 1870s and 1880s, Thomas Anshutz in the 1890s and Arthur DeCosta in the 1970s and 1980s. Representationist thought is the means by which the student is introduced to poetic truth. The kernel of this truth is found in the Academy's cast drawing and life studies programs, in its collection, and in the Furness building which houses exhibition galleries, studios, the collection, and archives. This Victorian structure lends a certain dignity and gravity to the student's endeavors. [RLM editor's note: a footnote number 3 was placed here in the author's final draft and was not included in the American Arts Quarterly version. The text for this footnote 3 reads: 3. Although some of the its historic studios are still used for the benefit of the students, the Furness building ceases to be the student's central facility. Spring 2004 will be the last time that the building will host the Annual Student Exhibition [ASE], a breaking of an over one-hundred-year tradition. This was an important ritual in that for over a century students begin their studies by entering Furness Building in the rear or student's entrance and working in the studios below the exhibition galleries. Their completion of studies is marked by the exhibition of artwork in the Academy's galleries and exiting the front or museum entrance. Starting in spring 2005 the ASE will be displayed in the Pennsylvania Academy's new Samuel M. V. Hamilton Building gallery. ]

Peale inaugurated a progressive curriculum in 1805. His program was further developed by Eakins in the 1870s and by Anshutz in the I890s, and under the guidance of DeCosta was re-invigorated in the 1970s. Vestiges of this program are present today, in principle and practice, as the foundation of the Academy's certificate program. Peale's model was the Royal Academy in London, while Eakins was inspired by the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Peale and Eakins chose European models in order to place the Academy in an international art forum and to expand its vision beyond the provincial bounds of "purely American art."[3] Their success in making the Academy a regional center of international thought can be measured in two significant and distinct legacies. The first and more obvious is in the artwork by artists affiliated with the Academy over two centuries. The second is the type of student the Academy has attracted.[4]

Peale and Eakins held that the training of the artist is best carried out in the studio and that studio courses should be augmented with lectures in perspective, anatomy, and chemistry (materials and techniques). Studio practice, not theory, continues to sustain the Academy's entire curriculum. Studio practice reigns supreme because, in representationist art, thought is not so much revealed in discussion or print as in oil, clay, and ink. Presently, the Academy's four-year program is evenly divided into two parts. For the first two years the student works primarily in charcoal, oil, or clay, depicting plaster casts, portraits, life (the nude figure), landscape, or still life. This foundation phase also includes classes or lectures in linear perspective, anatomy, art history, printmaking, and material and techniques. At the end of the first year the student chooses a major in painting, printmaking, [RLM editor's note: a footnote number 6 was placed here in the author's final draft and was not included in the American Arts Quarterly version. The text for this footnote 6 reads: 6. Printmaking is considered "controversial" by some faculty in that it is not a basic discipline but a craft extension of painting and drawing.] or sculpture. In the third and fourth years the student works independently in a private studio and receives critiques from appointed faculty.

An important aspect of the academic experience for first-year students is drawing from the Academy's collection of plaster casts. Cast drawing has been a feature of the curriculum since the inception of the school, and it is intimately linked with the students' training. The cast collection is sometimes referred to as the Academy's senior faculty. The collection includes seventy-five statues mostly made after the antique. Students not only draw from these casts, but also render them in oils and sculpt them in clay and wax. The following description was a class handout used during the 1970s and 1980s by Arthur DeCosta, one of several cast drawing instructors:

The Academy's collection of antique casts is probably the most extensive in this area to he available for the study of cast drawing. Most of these casts were in the school when the Furness building opened in 1876. Some are even older, like the Belvedere Torso which is thought to be a survivor from the original group, selected by the sculptor Houdon on the order of Napoleon and which the U.S. Ambassador Biddle brought back from France for the infant PAFA. They are in fact the Academy's original occupants and we see them, nobly ensconced, peering out from the backgrounds of ancient photographs of the school.
 
Because they hold so much of history of this institution and are, for the most part, irreplaceable, these venerable objects have earned their present valued position in the school program and deserve all of the care and consideration in the handling that we can provide. Academy students have drawn and studied these casts for more than a century. It is hoped that the rules included here will keep them intact for the future, as well as for present Academy students to draw and study.[5]

The practice of cast drawing at the Academy under the direction of Thomas Anshutz, Eakins's protégé and successor, was summed up, again by DeCosta, in a letter to The New York Times dated May 29, 1984:

When Eakins left the Academy, Anshutz took over. Anshutz was a cast drawing fanatic and he restored its practice-not to the neo-classic rendering that seems still to have been taught generally, but to a new open and natural concept that harks back to Renaissance thinking.
 
And so it is in the Academy today. With us, cast drawing remains a very effective means for isolating problems of representation and making them available for close examination and discussion between student and instructor.[6]

Thomas Anshutz's initiation of this "open and natural" means of rendering from the plaster casts, which spread to the life and portrait studios, soon evolved into an identifiable regional school of drawing. It is a school in which thought about pictorial space is for the most part conveyed through the medium of charcoal, although chalk, pastel, and ink have also been employed. This school of drawing originated and is maintained principally by students and artists "grubbing away at the historic chore of cast drawing." The industry and invention in pictorial space of these students have formed the graphic component for the Philadelphia schools of painting and sculpture.[7] The discipline is an illusionist one, and as such solves representationist investigations tonally rather than linearly.

The Academy's life studios were designed to be used for painting and sculpting the nude and portrait models and are still used for these pursuits.[8] Frank Furness, the architect of the Academy building at Broad and Cherry Streets, received expert counsel in planning these rooms from John Sartain, an engraver and member of the faculty. Furness also consulted sculptor Howard Roberts and painter Thomas Eakins.[9] Their advice ensured that these studios were outfitted with large and high northern skylights that would enable students to investigate properly the fall of light on the life model. A north exposure skylight or high window is preferred to southern, eastern, or western exposures because it provides consistent illumination. In illusionist art light is the true subject matter; hence, its depiction is crucial. Classic illusionist investigations are rather contrary to the contemporary dogma that "one paints what one sees." To the student who wished to paint what he saw Whistler responded: "Wait until you see what you paint!" This dictum also holds true for sculpture.

"Amongst all studies of natural phenomena light most delights its students," Leonardo remarked.[10] The Academy has been concerned with the origins of representation or the re-presentation of nature as a means of speculation. The student interested in illusionist thought is introduced to the notion that the conceptual (that which is intellectually realized) and the perceptual (that which is sensuously comprehended) must be united. The experience of this unity must be expressed in a manner that results in a tangible artifact. Oil paint, charcoal, and clay are the preferred mediums. When properly employed, they are part of an authentic experience rather than the record of an actual event such as one finds in the vehicles of photography, film, video, or the officially sanctioned art of the day, computer-generated images.

In the few painting classes in which the student endeavors to represent nature through the depiction of light, the limited earth palette is presented as a satisfying means to do so. A limited earth palette is a set of specified oil pigments made of white and earth or dead colors: yellows, oranges, reds, violets, blues, and greens-colors that are found in the earth and that are not prismatic or present in the rainbow. The student is not challenged to paint the exact colors of nature (what one "sees") or "to chase color" or even to mimic Kodachrome, those chromatic effects achieved by camera-conditioned experience. That is not art. Rather the endeavor is to represent the chromatic and tonal effects of nature.

The principle behind this palette is that it imparts an appreciation for a distinct chromatic development inherent to illusionist thought. Each color has its intrinsic hue with attendant cool, warm, and neutral qualities. The manipulation of these qualities gives the illusion of chroma and chiaroscuro through which one can convincingly convey space, texture, and, in the case of portraiture, likeness. In this chromatic structure, no matter how many colors there are on the palette, "white is always the queen of all colors and black the king."[11] This is not to say that the students are instructed to make grisailles, monochrome, or camïeu paintings, although these are sometimes employed as useful studio exercises. Instead, the ascendancy of white and black is recognized in order to emphasize the painter's dependency on these two colors for conveying a full range of chromatic effects.[12] This facet of the Academy's curriculum creates the conditions in which material and thought form a matrix for the subsequent execution of a tangible artifact. In sculpture, as well as painting and printmaking, ars sine scientia nihil est.[13]

The Academy both acknowledges and transmits legacy. Student copying of work from the Academy's collection is a factor in such transmission. An art academy's collection exists for the edification of the student, rather than to reflect the taste of the period.[14] Until recently the Academy's collection was carefully assembled and augmented, and had been maintained over many years. It included work that could readily be analyzed by the student, who could best conduct such analysis through copying. It should be noted that copying has a long and noble tradition, and was advocated by Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Delacroix, Degas, and Sargent, among others. Copying provides a subtle means for ideas to enter the mind and has been an important instrument in the diffusion of Renaissance thought. Over the past twenty years the Academy has actively rid its collection of European artwork in order to concentrate on American art. This action cancels a crucial aspect of the Academy's heritage and insulates the Academy from an international forum.

The ultimate purpose of an art academy's curriculum in drawing, painting, and sculpture is to guide the student in seeking a means to understand and to be understood. For example, in portraiture likeness and other attendant qualities are secondary to the profundity of revelation of the passion and fragility of life -- for the essential lesson is hope. In pursuing likeness, composition, and color, the student learns to articulate his or her thoughts in oil paint, charcoal, or clay. The aim of one's skillfulness is not to represent "what one sees," but what one perceives, a far different aim from ego-based self-expression.

Modernist training, without ancestry and preserving no legacy, concentrates essentially on the student's ego, promoting self-expression and encouraging the callow student to draw, paint, sculpt, or do as he or she wishes. Meaningful criticism is rendered problematic. Different from the promotion of self-expression, so prevalent in current artistic training, is the stimulation of originality. This stimulation is part of an art academy's mission, a part that is easily undermined. In Western thought, originality may be distinguished from novelty by its deep adherence to its sources. This means, in the case of the representationist artist, a profound familiarity with both Renaissance and antique art. The importance of originality lies in its ability to reveal something about the self, "so that one is discovering something one has known inside one's self the whole time, what one has foreseen. To do this is to persuade or dissuade the rational and, in turn, recognize poetic unreason."[15]

Originality thus constituted seems curiously tied to the fate of the individual artist, and is nourished by connection to cultures in which the concept of fate is a central feature. By way of contrast, the so-called risk-taking encouraged by the custodians of contemporary official art is often nothing more than the promotion of neo-primitive mannerisms. True risk-taking involves the sublimation of the self or ego through the immersion of self in inevitable ancestry and a search for origins. The Academy plays a crucial role in fostering such an immersion and providing a context for students to embark on what will be a lifelong speculation regarding nature, particularly human nature.

The highest aim of academic art instruction is to prepare the individual to recognize humanity's insignificance in the cosmos, and, once that is assimilated, to assume the responsibility for making sense of the passion with which we are endowed. In relation to this mission the Academy faces an important challenge: to determine its future in the twenty-first century. Will the Academy be a true art academy or will it become an art school? Until a decision is made on this critical question, it is pointless to make subordinate decisions about developing the collection, the faculty, the curriculum, and the facilities. The Academy is more fortunate than most other art institutions: it has the luxury and opportunity of deciding whether it will continue to be the standard bearer of aesthetics that it has been for much of its history. The decision is rendered both more difficult and more important by the continuing domination of modernism in art education. It is a decision that should be closely watched by those who recognize the value of representationist perception for its singular contribution to the understanding of human fate.

 

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