An Outing: Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (Part 1)

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Looking south down Broad Street from the front of the PAFA building. Visible is the PAFA historical sign, with the spire of the Arch Street United Methodist Church, part of the Masonic Temple visible behind the pole, and to the right City Hall with William Penn looking ghostly in the fog.

Sunday, Jan. 22nd was gray and foggy, as seems to be the trend here lately. I had plans to go to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) with a friend for the afternoon to see their current exhibit, World War I and American Art. I didn’t go with the intention of turning my trip into a post (or two!), but I found myself quite fascinated by the portrayal of women in some of the pieces on display. And then of course as I did a little research into PAFA itself, I found that women had an unusual relationship with the Academy for the time.

Founded in 1805, PAFA is the first, and oldest, art museum and art school in the US. It was founded by Charles Wilson Peale, a painter and scientist, sculptor William Rush, and other artists and business leaders. The first building housing PAFA opened in 1807 and from it’s opening, one day a week was set aside for women’s classes only. Plaster casts of nudes, particularly male nudes, were removed during the women’s hours because the sensibilities of the day were that is was indecent for women to view such things.

Progressive in it’s views towards women, women could not only gain professional experience at PAFA, but also recognition. Both male and female students were treated (mostly) the same and women were involved with all aspects of the museum: studying, teaching, collecting, and curating. All alongside and collaborating with their male colleagues.


In 1812 PAFA opened the art school. The school’s charter in 1810 stated that it should be organized for “youth of both sexes,” though women would not actually study at the school until the 1840s. But during that time, women were not ignored. In 1824 two women artists were elected as academicians, and in 1831 5 more women were also elected.

Image extracted from page 020 of Philadelphia, Photographs Album, by . Original held and digitised by the British Library. Copied from Flickr.

Recognizing the growing amount of women interested in studying at PAFA, in 1844 women were admitted as students to the school and the sculpture gallery was opened for the exclusive use of women on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings. This was a significant advancement in formal art training for women as even the most progressive art schools in Europe did not admit women. These special hours were abolished in 1856 when the Board, still concerned over women viewing nude male forms, called for a “a close fitting, but inconspicuous fig-leaf” to be attached to figures.


In 1845 fire destroyed major wings of the original building, along with a large number of artworks. PAFA supporters raised funds for rebuilding, with the largest sum of $10,000 coming from the Ladies Bazaar and Ball. The new school and museum opened in 1847, and still stands and is in use today as PAFA.

The PAFA building as it stands today. Source: Philadelphia Architecture: A Guide to the City

Women were admitted into anatomy and cast drawing courses in 1860 and given access to nude female models in 1868. Six years later they were granted access to male models, but I believe at this time they were still required to wear loincloths. In 1886 Thomas Eakins, despite warnings from the Board, insisted on using nude models and removed the loincloth from a male model in a women’s class. He was forced to resign from the school after this incident.

In 1878 Catherine Drinker became the first woman to teach at the academy. In 1895 Cecilia Beaux was the first female painting and drawing instructor. However it’s interesting to note that the first woman did not sit on the Board of Directors until 1950.


During the 19th century, more than 1,400 female students studied at PAFA, 1,888 women exhibited, and 70 female artists and students received awards, prizes and scholarships.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of my trip to PAFA where I look at their current exhibit, World War I and American Art, and how women are portrayed during this time.


Further Reading:

Expanded Horizon: Female Artists at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts During the Course of the Ninteenth Century, Anna Havemann

An Enduring Legacy: The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, 1085 – 2005

Revolutionary Artists, Revolutionary Institution Jamey Gigliotti

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