The Art Students League of New York: Highlights from the Permanent Collection and Selections from the Hillstrom Museum of Art Collection

September 10 through November 4, 2007


The Art Students League of New York: Highlights from the Permanent Collection

by Pamela N. Koob


One of America's oldest art schools, the Art Students League of New York has historically attracted outstanding talents as teachers and prepared others who became major figures in twentieth-century American art. In the League's landmark building on Manhattan's West 57th Street, Georgia O'Keeffe studied with William Merritt Chase, Jackson Pollock worked under the guidance of Thomas Hart Benton, and Louise Nevelson enrolled in the classes of George Grosz and Hans Hofmann. The school's permanent collection documents its distinguished history and reflects art movements of the last 125 years, from late nineteenth-century figure drawings to 1930s social realist prints to abstract paintings. Inevitably, the works often reflect events and trends in the nation's history.

The League was founded in 1875 by art students who were dissatisfied with the educational opportunities at the National Academy of Design in New York City. As it evolved, the school reflected practices at the prestigious French art academies. For example, each instructor enjoyed complete independence within his atelier (studio classroom.) It was uniquely American, however, in its co-educational student body and democratically elected governing board. By 1920, the League was the country's most prominent art school, inspiring similar institutions in other American cities and attracting students from every state.

The school's permanent collection began as a learning resource. A friendly patron donated a set of etchings by James McNeill Whistler. Another gave a portrait of any early League instructor. League students fortunate enough to study in Europe were asked to share some of their figure drawings done while abroad -- called "exile donations." These drawings, often displayed on classroom walls as educational aides, also entered the collection.

Other works were acquired through scholarships awarded to outstanding students. Norman Rockwell's 1911 charcoal illustration of Oliver Goldsmith's The Deserted Village, for example, was most likely a class assignment that won for him a year's tuition at the League. In exchange, the drawing became the school's property. Over time, other exceptional student works were acquired for the collection as a record of what had been accomplished. Will Barnet's early lithograph Fulton Street Fish Market falls into this category.

The collection also benefited from the generosity of League instructors such as William Merritt Chase, whose flamboyant personality and bravura style attracted large classes. Chase's Fish Still Life, reflecting his Munich-based mode of direct painting in dark tones, was a demonstration piece done in his still-life course. Instructors Allen Tucker, Kenneth Hayes Miller, and Frank Vincent DuMond also donated works to the League.

Over the decades, the collection registered the shifting styles and interests of American artists. Charles Courtney Curran's Woman Reading and Allen Tucker's October Cornfield reflected Americans' turn-of-the-century interest in French Impressionism, with its focus on leisure activities and interest in capturing the evanescent quality of light. John Sloan's satirical etching, Connoisseurs of Art, drew fire from those who found such subjects offensive; the same critics would later use the term "Ashcan School" to describe the candid images of city life done by Sloan and his compatriots.

By the late 1920s, growing student interest in European avant-garde movements prompted the League to hire artists from abroad, including Hans Hofmann, George Grosz and Jan Matulka. Years spent in Paris had exposed Matulka to cubism and surrealism, both reflected in his Still Life with Horse Head and Phonograph. Students David Smith, Burgoyne Diller and Dorothy Dehner found his advocacy of modernism compelling. At the same time, the League faculty included artists who focused on native subjects and worked in realist styles. Kenneth Hayes Miller's images of women shopping documented both the emerging middle class and the urban vein of regionalism. The Depression-era focus on both the dignity and the de-humanizing aspects of labor emerged in Harry Sternberg's print Steel. Well into the 1940s, the interest in American subjects endured in the work of other League instructors. Printmaker Martin Lewis celebrated New York's architecture and its subcultures. Reginald Marsh, who trained his artistic eye on the average New Yorker, found inspiration in the crowds at Coney Island.

Instructors working in abstract styles and with non-traditional materials are also represented in the collection. Collagist and painter Leo Manso, who exhibited with Hans Hofmann, Jackson Pollock and Adolph Gottlieb in the 1940s, focused on the "distillation of the landscape experience," embodied in his painting, After the Storm. Charles Alston and Norman Lewis, African-American artists who taught at the League, gave the collection examples of their abstract work as well.

Sculpture has been an integral part of the League's program almost since its inception. In this exhibition, it is represented by the humanism of William Zorach's mother and child and by contemporary sculptor Rhoda Sherbell's portrait of Aaron Copland. Among the present generation of artists in the exhibit are instructors William Behnken and Michael Pellettieri and recent students Ellen Eagle and Roberto Franzone.

As in its earliest years, the League today offers students the chance to learn from experienced, professional artists in studio settings. Among the 2500 individuals currently enrolled, many are from Europe and Asia. Some are intent on professional careers, others are passionate amateurs. Each is self-directed as there are no grades or course prerequisites. Each sets his or her own path based on individual aesthetic temperament. A school established by and for artists, the League has enabled generations of individuals to stretch their talents, develop critical skills and learn from those working beside them in the studio. This exhibition presents some of the high points in that history.


About the author

Pamela N. Koob is Curator of the Permanent Collection, The Art Students League of New York. Ms. Koob holds an MA in art history from Hunter College, City University of New York and has been curator of the League's Permanent Collection since 1998. Her article on the collection appeared in the May 2004 issue of American Artist. She has also written on the work of Edward Hopper, most recently for the Smithsonian Institution's American Art magazine. Her current research focuses on the topic " Modernism, Art Politics and the Art Students League."


Resource Library editor's note:

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on September 28, 2007 with permission of the author and the Art Students League of New York, granted to TFAO on the same date.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Smith Kramer Travelling Exhibitions, Donald Myers of the Hillstrom Museum of Art and Ms. Koob for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

Go back to main article

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Hillstrom Museum of Art in Resource Library.

Visit the Table of Contents for Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art

Copyright 2007 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.