I was suprised to find that after my previous post on 19th century Realist painter Thomas Eakins the entire text of the previously quoted article “The Art Schools of Philadelphia” can be found on Cornell University Library’s “Making of America” website. It’s a fascinating resource containing copies of such 19th Century journals as Century Magazine and Scribner’s in online form. Eakins is a fascinating and eccentric figure. We can count ourselves lucky to live in more liberal times but even to modern eyes his enthusiasm for the nude is probably a bit strange (I’ll let you decide). As an artist though, he is of great stature and there’s much of interest in the article. Unfortunately space doesn’t allow me to go into his work on time lapse photography with Eadweard Muybridge (they are not mentioned in the article) but perhaps I’ll do so another time. “The Art schools of Philadelphia” is a fascinating account of how the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts was being turned into what must have been the most advanced art college anywhere in the world at that time. (Although Frederick Schuselle is mentioned in the article as being head of the school in fact due to ill health he was only nominally in charge. Thomas Eakins was responsible for the curriculum .)
The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts was opened in 1805 by a group comprising the painter Charles Wilson Peale and assorted laymen, most of whom were lawyers. It’s purpose was to ” improve and refine the public taste in works of art, and to cultivate and encourage our native genius by providing specimens of the arts for imitation and schools for instruction” It’s first exhibition was of plaster casts from the Louvre and after protests from a group of artists ( “indecorous and altogether inconsistent with the purity of Republican morals”) one day of the week had to be set aside for female visitors where the figures were draped in muslin(!) Classes were provided,with tuition but only on a very informal basis. Students would begin by copying old engravings and the Louvre casts and after an unspecified time could then apply for a permit to work from live models in the basement. The building itself was old and fire damaged and the roof leaked. Despite all this the Academy offered the finest art education in America at this time and 300 students a year from throughout the United States to study there. Aside from Eakins another notable artist of the time was Mary Cassat. Tuition was also provided free of charge.
At the time the article was written the college had just abandoned it’s dilapidated former premises and moved into it’s spacious new building on Broad and Cherry streets. Sidney D Kirkpatrick, in his book “The Revenge of Thomas Eakins” describes
“large, well-proportioned galleries for viewing the academy art collection filled the second floor of the block-long structure. The first floor and the basement were occupied by the art school. On the south side, facing Cherry Street, five galleries accommodated students drawing from the collection of antique casts. Farther on, spacious rooms made well-lit studios for the life-classes. Lecture halls and various administrative offices and artist’s cubicles and dressing rooms for models were arrayed along the north side of the building.”
There was to be less emphasis on working from casts, instead students were encouraged to work from life as soon as possible.(Over 60 hours a week) supplemented with classes in anatomy that were as comprehensive as those taught in the first year at medical school. Eakins himself had initially studied medicine and was considered to be extremely knowledgeable on the subject. (The article includes a variety of engravings of life at the class including one ” Differentiating the Muscles of the Face by Electricity” that appears to show a live subject in a demonstration having electrodes attached to his face! ) Sculpture was also taught not just as an end in itself but to give painting students a deeper understanding of three dimensional form. Higher mathematics and perspective were taught so that complex forms in nature could be better reduced to simpler geometric shapes and therefore made easier to draw or paint. Life models were changed as often as possible and photographs of the more gifted models were kept in the library for research purposes. Another innovation was to allow women and men to study together rather than separately. As Eakins put it the academy was the only place where women could study the nude figure “without annoyance”
Eakins was a stern and inspiring teacher but turned out to be a failure at institutional politics. Due to his own interest in the nude in his own art as well as his practise of encouraging students to pose nude for each other in life classes he became a controversial figure. Then, as now models were not always easy to obtain and in the earlier part of his career it had been common practise at the same institution for prostitutes to be hired for this purpose. Eakins had even been fired once for asking for money to pay for the proper hire of models. It’s likely that as he was medically trained Eakins simply had a no nonsense approach to the human form but in the moral climate of the day this marked him out.
To quote the painter Adam Emory Allbright, (also from “Revenge of Thomas Eakins”)
“I can remember the flutter that swept us all when he appeared. He was always accompanied by his dog, a big brown setter, a fine intelligent animal who would lie quietly by his chair all through the session. When Eakins came to the life class, he always held the door open for him, with a ‘come in, Harry.’ When we heard that ‘Come in, Harry’, our careful studies suddenly seemed like poor things…and we felt like turning them around and sneaking from the room before the master got a chance to look at them…Like Christ among sinners, he saw something of good in everyone. But had there been a faker or poser among us, Tommy (Eakins) would have spotted him and cast him into the limbo of oblivion”
After continually flouting the academy rules on nudity Eakins was finally sacked for removing the loin cloth from a male model in a mixed life class and that in order to better illustrate an anatomical point he had exposed his own pelvis to a female student and family freind Amelia Van Buren. “I gave her the explanation as I could not have done by words only” was his only explanation. The truth, however was much more complicated. Some students found the course content too thorough and felt that little attention was paid to the role of inspiration and feeling in driving the artistic process. This led to complaints. As a former student and later celebrated American painter Cecilia Beaux put it “No one who studied under him ever forgot his precepts, or could be interested in any principles of art that did not include his. They were rock bottom, fundamental but somehow reached regions, by research, that others could not gain by flight.” He no doubt alienated the weaker students who he would pass by silently, something that the painter Gerome would also do. (Eakins was his pupil at the Academie des Beaux Arts). Having women and men study alongside each other was incredibly advanced for the time. Although Eakins tried to create an atmosphere similar to the one he had experienced in medical school what was really required by the parents of the female students sent to study under him was more of a “finishing school”. Nonetheless he inspired such devotion that sixteen of his students left the colllege with him and for a time he ran his own school. This is how the article begins, I hope you enjoy it. :
“The rooms in which the students draw and paint and model would not fail to excite the envy of New York art students.The Academy is a spacious building, and its scale is as much larger than that of the National Academy of Design as the difference between the prospective needs in 1860 and in `1876 would natiirally make it. But whereas the National Academy was designed chiefly for the exhibitions of pictures without much regard to the comfort and convenience of the classes, which are relegated to the basement, almost the entire ground floor of the much larger Philadelphia Academy is exclusively reserved for the use of the schools. As one enters from Broad street, he soon finds himself in the hall of antiques, lighted by a large skylight. To the left is the “ Dying Gladiator,” before which two or three young people have erected their easels and are working in crayon. The right wing of the hall is lined with casts from the “ Venus of Milo”and Myron’s“Discobolus,” past the Roman emperors and down to very late work, and including, of course, the usual casts for beginners. The students are taking their choice, and are scattered in every direction,getting each his or her favorite view of some cast, They form either the first antique class to which they have been admitted upon the presentation of an acceptable drawing from the solid, such as the cast of a head or hand, and in which they draw from casts of portions of the body; or the second antique, to which they have been promoted upon making a satisfactory drawing from casts representing the whole figure. Down what may be called the nave of this spacious interior, the first door on the right opens into a room in which the sketch classes only, work.Around the walls are, perhaps, the most complete collection of carbon photographs from old masters in the country (outside of the Braun agency}, and the benefit to be obtained from a study of them, and possibly it would not be too fanciful so say the insensible benefit of a daily view of them,must be of consequence. On at raised turntable is a young woman, say in a black dress with a red shawl thrown over her head and shoulders and reclining in a picturesque attitude in a chair,—posing in her turn for the co-operative sketch class,which is similar in design to those of the National Academy, and the Art Students’League. Next this,on the same side, is the main life class room of the Academy, provided with dressing rooms and other conveniences, and probably the largest room in the country that is devoted to such a purpose.
Here the men’s and women’s life classes work at different hours. Admission to the life class is granted upon presentation of a satisfactory drawing from a cast of the entire figure. All the drawings are submitted to the committee of instruction, who, with Professor Schussele,examine and pass upon them at the regular bimonthly meetings; In this room, to take one class as an example of all,—some twenty young men, considerably younger than the average at the National Academy schools, range themselves every morning and evening in a semicircle around a living and nude model. Almost without exception they use the brush—which would excite wonder and possibly reprehension from the pupils of the National Academy. From five to thirty minutes is spent in posing the model, which the pupils do themselves, sometimes under the supervision of Professor Schussele or Mr.Eakins, but often unaided, The model is an admirable one,-at least the one I saw, an athletic sailor, was fine. And if as I infer from some of the sketches that lay about the room, this is not always true, it is probably due to Professor Schussele’s preference for variety over monotonous excellence. When the model is changed every week or fortnight in the course of a season there must be not a few that in no degree suggest Aphrodite or Apollo. But I saw a sketch of none that was not individual, none whose ugliness was characterless. A half hour after this finely developed sailor just mentioned had been posed, it was interesting to make the circuit of the easels. Every degree of merit and every variety of method was to be noticed . Of course there was nothing ideal on any canvas or paper,—-nothing better than the superb figure that was the focus of the group. But one looks for beauty elsewhere than in the work of pupils, and indeed would be by no means hopefully impressed at witnessing evident effort after it. Here and there, however, there were canvases that had clearly caught traits of the model. One in particular had an· admirable portrait of the man,-everything essential indicated in a half hour’s work, and nothing added or needing to be added but emphasis,definiteness, oompleteness. From this the scale of excellence descended to an outline drawing in charcoal,which it would require weeks to bring, into any resemblance to the model;or, indeed, to get together at all. It was notable, however, that excellence considerably preponderated, notable also that earnest diligence, not to say ardor, was universal.”
There follows an interesting description of the dissection classes which I will leave you to find for yourself. Eakins concludes this section by assuring Scribner’s readers that the students are as “enthusiastic over their ‘hideous’ work as any decorator of china at South Kensington could be over hers. As for their artistic impulse such work does not affect it in any way whatsoever. If they have any when they come here they do not lose it by learning how to exercise it; if not of course they will no more get it here than anywhere else” The article then goes on to describe one of the anatomy lectures.
“Insensibly the visitor begins to be impressed by the extreme sense of this and his surroundings to take on a different look.The “subject“ comes so be but an organism of bones and muscles. The casts of arms depending from a swinging bar become interesting for what they show; the muscles being painted red, the tendons blue, and the bones white, one is enabled to see at a glance their reciprocal relations. One“ places ” all the paraphenalia of the room ;begins to appreciate first how much less liable the young men and women who study here are to draw impossible legs, arms,trunks than they were before; come to feel that, after all it is the province of an art school to provide knowledge and training, and not inspiration and finally to perceive how wide of the mark it is to suppose that familiarity with such scenes as this of necessity dulls one’s sensitiveness.In the evening there is a lecture in the spacious lecture room;upon the specific subject with which students have been making themselves practically familiar during the few days just preceding. Upon the platform is Dr, Keen, the professor of artistic anatomy, surrounded by the illustrations for his lecture. He describes the leg, bones,muscles and tendons, and their several functionsThen he iillustrates its construction by the skeleton, the manikin and the “subject “-it is worth noting that compared with the last, the two former are of small account in point of clearness and vividness of illustration. Then the model steps upon a chair and is put through various movements which show the action and aspect of what has just been described and explained. ‘Every one pays strict attention; the lecture ris vivacious to enthusiasm and the perfect lucidity of his lecture is emphasized by constant iteration until the youngest and the dullest must understand it; in less than two hours every pupil probably knows as much about the leg as will be of any service to him in drawing and painting it” Do you imagine that the pupil will beable to draw a leg better for knowing all that?” I asked Mr. Eakins.“ Knowing all that will enable him to observe more closely, and the closer his observation is the better his drawing will be,” he returned; and the whole point of such instruction is there Dr. Keen himself speaks of it something in this way: The object of his course lectures, he says, is not a study of pure anatomy, but of anatomy in its relation to form; not to make anatomists but artists.The means of illustration are as varied and complete as it is possible for them to be. Separate bones and a mounted skeleton,plastic models, numerous drawings and the blackboard he uses constantly; when the muscles are demonstrated a cadaver is dissected and all studies are corrected and enforced at the moment by study of the living model, whose muscles are called into play by weights, suspended rings, and other apparatus for showing the effect of various postures. The dissections for the lectures are all done by the class of advanced students,-numbering some six or eight, perhaps, under the direction of Dr. Keen and of Mr. Eakins. Every day during the dissections, the life classes are admitted to the dissecting room to study the parts already Iectured upon and to make drawings of them for reference and guidance. There are some thirty Iectures in the course, which. one may judge from the following details. is tolerably thorough: alter an introductory lecture upon the relations of anatomy to art, and methods of studying artistic anatomy, some eight lectures are devoted to the skeleton and twelve to the muscles, chiefly, of course,the superficial muscles; the face naturally occupies a good deal of attention and dissections of the human head are accompanied by dissections of horses’, cats’, dogs”, and sheeps’ heads to show comparisons and variations. Electricity is used to show the action of individual muscles, and four lectures are given to the individual features of the face, with analyses of their forms and their exaggerations in caricature. Two lectures relate to the skin and its appendages,the hair and beard, and a. careful study is made of the wrinkles of the skin, especially those of the face. Finally, four lecturesare devoted to the subjects of “postural expression,” the proportions of the body,and the influence of sex upon physical development.It quite takes one‘s breath away, does it not? Exhaustive is a faint word by which to characterize such a course of instruction”