Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

  • Arts & Culture
  • 1805

The oldest art museum and art school in America was built up through many decades of private support, particularly from Philadelphia business leaders. With George Clymer—a revered Pennsylvania merchant and banker who had been a primary financer of the American Revolution—as the lead monetary backer, and artists Charles Willson Peale, William Rush, and Rembrandt Peale providing the inspiration, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts was founded in 1805. A small clutch of talented painters had by then become established in America, but a desperate shortage of art schools and museums meant that most had to go to Europe to develop their craft.

Soon after its launch, the Pennsylvania Academy began to benefit from repeated acts of private largesse. In 1811, wealthy local merchant William Bingham donated Gilbert Stuart’s beloved George Washington (Lansdowne Portrait). That same year, Napoleon Bonaparte contributed 24 books of European etchings. In 1813 a large gift of paintings, casts, books, and engravings (probably the most important art collection then owned by an American) was given to the academy by philanthropist Allen Smith. Many other masterpieces, particularly by American artists, were donated over following decades.

The academy had a financial crisis in the 1830s, from which it was rescued by public contributions. By mid-century it was the major force in American art. Thomas Eakins, who had been a student at the Academy, returned to teach, and became the director in 1882, installing an original curriculum that mostly remains today—two years learning the fundamentals of drawing, painting, and sculpture (with an emphasis on anatomy, dissection of natural subjects, and extensive sketching of the nude), followed by two years of guided independent study. Other prominent artists like William Merritt Chase, Mary Cassatt, and Alexander Calder were also tied to the academy, as were great donors like Joseph Harrison and Albert Barnes. The academy continues to operate today as one of the country’s most august artistic nonprofits.