Interactive Timeline

historical timeline

PAFA School Commences

In 1810 PAFA set aside a room for the use of the school, now formally organized into a cast drawing class, and a life academy with access to a model. In addition, several artist-professors were routinely accessible. This level of organization was not sustained for long, but entrance to the galleries for copying and critiques from PAFA artists remained available until the school's major reorganization took place several decades later. Another resource for study was provided by PAFA's first major gift, a large collection of paintings, casts, books and engravings donated in 1813 by Joseph Allen Smith of Charleston, South Carolina. (The ship carrying Smith's donation had been seized as a war prize by Britain, and when its cargo was released through a court decree, a worldwide legal precedent was set favoring free trade in works of art in times of war.) The Smith gift was augmented by 24 books of etchings by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, donated through Napoleon Bonaparte in 1811. In this decade, the paintings collection was enriched with two of its greatest masterpieces: Gilbert Stuart's George Washington (Lansdowne Portrait), donated by William Bingham in 1811, and PAFA's first purchase of a major painting, Washington Allston's Dead Man Restored to Life by Touching the Bones of the Prophet Elisha, accomplished by mortgaging the building in 1816.

PAFA Begins to Grow

After just 15 years in existence, the PAFA board recognized that more space was needed for students to copy from casts and oil paintings (the primary method of instruction at that time). Thus a library and a statue gallery were added to the building in the early 1820s. Although the library was not open to the public, the new gallery allowed Philadelphians to view additional works of art, both from the growing collection and in the annual exhibitions, which continued to provide the city's only regular display of painting and sculpture.

In 1828 a monumental headless statue of the goddess Ceres, unearthed in Greece, was presented to the collection by Captain Patterson of the U.S. Navy. Placed on the lawn in front of PAFA's building, it remained there for 45 years. In 1876 Ceres was installed on the facade of the new Furness-Hewitt designed building, where it rested until 1937. Greece was on the minds of many in this period and even in those precarious financial times, the board responded to international appeals by sending one week's receipts to the relief fund in aid of the Greek populace then suffering under the Turkish occupation.

In the middle of the decade the 67-year-old Marquis de Lafayette visited PAFA. Upon receipt of an Honorary Membership, he expressed great satisfaction at the institution's progress.

PAFA Survives a Crisis

The decade of the 1830s at PAFA was marked by what the directors of the day termed an acute "pecuniary embarrassment." In this period the institution stood on the edge of bankruptcy and closure, with the directors going so far as to discuss selling its assets and disbanding. Funds were raised through a printed circular calling for public contributions and by collecting unpaid yearly dues from the stockholders. In addition, two small stores were constructed along the Chestnut Street frontage to produce income, and by 1836 there was sufficient confidence to warrant mortgaging the building to buy Benjamin West's Death on the Pale Horse. While the purchase seems like a brilliant move today, the artists of the city complained that the painting symbolized PAFA's lack of commitment to living artists. Their bitter and public pronouncements about the European and old-master focus of the exhibitions embodied the division between the two sides. While the local artists sought participation in the institution's management and exhibition planning, the affluent gentlemen board members — many descendants of the City's founding elite — were more concerned with the diffusion of cultivated taste to the public. Ultimately both sides gained small victories: PAFA focused increasingly on American art and the board remained in the control of laymen city leaders.

1840s & 1850s
PAFA Celebrates Its 50th Anniversary

The fiftieth anniversary of PAFA was celebrated in a quiet way at the stockholders meeting of 1856 (fifty years after the charter was ratified by the Commonwealth). Rembrandt Peale, one of six surviving signers of the 1805 document, chaired the meeting. His address stated that 12,000 visitors had been counted in the previous year, sixty-four students were enrolled in the school, the library housed 150 books and no serious financial encumbrance was suffered. At mid-century PAFA was the focal point of Philadelphia's cultural life and a major force on the American art scene, even though a fire had virtually destroyed the original building in 1845. Among the temporary exhibits shown in the newly reconstructed building after 1847 were Thomas Cole's famous allegorical series The Course of Empire (1852), Hiram Powers's controversial Greek Slave (1848) and a landmark exhibition of English Pre-Raphaelite art (1858) — the institution's first blockbuster. The largest part of the reconstruction funds had come from the Ladies Bazaar and Ball, the first recorded effort of a group of women volunteering on behalf of PAFA. Ten years later, in 1856, Ladies Day in the galleries was abolished, and fig leaves were ordered for the casts.

PAFA Leaves Chestnut Street

The decade of the 1860s marked the end of PAFA's presence on Chestnut Street. Both of its buildings there, the first designed by John Dorsey in 1805, and its successor by Richard Gilpin of 1846, were white classical temples with small columned porticos. The structures sat well back from the street between 10th and 11th streets, and after 1839 were partially obscured from view by two commercial fronts PAFA had erected to provide income. By the late 1860s classicism in architecture, once the height of fashion, was fading and the building was badly deteriorated and too small for PAFA's needs. The decision to sell was not difficult, but the selection of the new location caused a rift within the board. One faction insisted that the Broad and Cherry location would turn out to be a disastrous choice, soon to be cut off from the rest of the city by the massive bulk of City Hall. The decade was a quiet period in the galleries with Civil War disruptions causing a reduced schedule of special exhibitions. The school, however, was thriving, and several students who would go on to fame pursued study in the 1860s, including Thomas Eakins, Mary Cassatt, Edwin Austin Abbey, and William Harnett.

Major Gifts to the Museum Collection

The sale of PAFA's Chestnut Street building in 1870 left the institution without a home while the new building rose at the corner of Broad and Cherry streets. Museum operations were suspended for five years, and the school operated in rented quarters only from 1870 to 1873. The new building opened in 1876, and in the following four years the school was reorganized, Thomas Eakins was hired, and several landmark gifts enriched the museum collection.

The art collection amassed by Joseph Harrison arrived in 1878. Among the seventeen works in the gift were Charles Willson Peale's The Artist in His Museum, John Vanderlyn's Ariadne, two portraits of George Washington and two works by Benjamin West: Christ Rejected and Penn's Treaty with the Indians. Half of the Harrison works would become signature paintings for PAFA, as well as important icons of American art history. In the next year, the Edward L. Carey collection brought twenty-five American works into the collection, including paintings by Daniel Huntington, Henry Inman, William Sidney Mount, Emanuel Leutze, and Thomas Sully. Also in 1879, another historic event for the museum collection occurred with the gift of the Henry D. Gilpin estate, which provided the institution with its first endowment of funds for art acquisition.

The Thomas Eakins Era at PAFA

The decade of the 1880s was notable for the presence of Thomas Eakins at PAFA. Eakins and Fairman Rogers, a board member who was very interested in the teaching methods of the school, researched American and European art education practices. They introduced a number of new ideas and ushered in a half century during which PAFA's program set the pace for American art education. These changes included a sequentially organized program of elementary and advanced courses outlined in a printed catalog. And for the first time, a small tuition charge was introduced.

Eakins' teaching ideas led to a much greater emphasis on the study of human anatomy, including dissections of animals and human cadavers and increased emphasis on the nude model. In turn, he de-emphasized the study of the antique casts, encouraging students to work directly from a figure. Eakins also introduced a sculpture class in modeling the body from life, a practice that heretofore had not existed in American art schools. Eakins was dismissed from the faculty in 1886 for his over-emphasis on the use of the nude. However, many of the Eakins-era curriculum innovations remained part of the school program after his departure.

The Directorship of Harrison Morris

Harrison S. Morris (1856-1948) served as the Director of PAFA from 1892 to 1905. He was one of this country's first professional arts administrators, and his impact on the institution was profound. Under Morris PAFA sponsored many important exhibitions including four landmark displays of photographic art, and one-man shows by William M. Chase, Robert Henri, Everett Shinn, and Edward Redfield. In addition, he led PAFA in some of its most enlightened collecting, acquiring, among many others, Winslow Homer's The Fox Hunt, Maxfield Parrish's Old King Cole, William M. Chase's Lady with a White Shawl, Cecilia Beaux's New England Woman, Henry O. Tanner's Nicodemus and Childe Hassam's Cat Boats, Newport Harbor.

Active in numerous art organizations, Morris later worked as a magazine editor. He was a prolific author of fiction, poetry, artist biographies and articles, and in 1930 penned his autobiography, Confessions in Art. While strongly critical of PAFA (having departed in a stormy row with the board), his account revealed much about art-world and PAFA dynamics in the early twentieth century.

In 1891 Morris encouraged Thomas Eakins to return to PAFA after the artist's dismissal five years earlier. In 1896 he advocated acquisition of PAFA's first Eakins painting, The Cello Player, and sat for one of Eakins' greatest portraits, a work acquired for the permanent collection in 2000.

PAFA's 100th Anniversary

In December 1904 the President, Edward Coates, and the Board of Directors raised $3,250 in the Guarantee Fund to cover expenses for the 100th Anniversary Celebration. The Celebration was completed (under budget) for a total cost of $2,145, which included an elaborate dinner held in the most ornate gallery of the Historic Landmark Building (designed by Frank Furness and George W. Hewitt) at $827.30 for 262 guests.

Guests, many of whom arrived from New York City via a private chartered railroad car, included 21 descendants of the founders, well-known PAFA graduates and, according to The New York Times, the "greatest gathering of artists." Speakers included Hampton L. Carson, who celebrated Pennsylvania, the first American Commonwealth to charter an art academy; Rev. Dr. Furness, who discussed the history of PAFA; Charles Biddle, descendant of two founders; and noted artist William Merritt Chase.

Chester Springs Summer Campus

In 1917 PAFA opened a summer school of open-air painting called the Academy Country School, a campus referred to colloquially as Chester Springs. The site, which occupied over 100 acres in Chester County, about six miles southwest of Phoenixville, operated until 1952. Its location, where three historic natural springs emerge, was a medicinal spa well before the American Revolution and a hospital during and after the Valley Forge encampment. The buildings on the property, forming the village of Yellow Springs, were converted to art school use by PAFA. A former hotel became a dormitory, while the various sheds and barns became studios. There were also two pools, tennis and croquet courts, and acres of open fields and farmland. Tuition was low, sessions lasted six weeks and many students returned year after year. The idea of a country campus stemmed from the early 20th-century vogue for summer landscape painting programs, a legacy of the Impressionist movement. The emphasis was on working outdoors, so landscape and open-air figure studies predominated, with still life and animal painting offered as well. Today the location operates as Historic Yellow Springs and The Chester Springs Studio, organizations with which PAFA has cooperative relationships for summer landscape classes.

Landmark Exhibitions

In the 1920s PAFA presented three exhibitions that now stand as landmarks in the history of American modernism. The first, Representative Modern Masters, in the spring of 1920, featured European Post-Impressionists like Cézanne and Gauguin, as well as younger artists such as Picasso and Matisse. Attendance topped 25,000 visitors in three weeks. The organizers, Arthur B. Carles and Carroll Tyson, secured a catalog introduction by conductor Leopold Stokowski, who encouraged acceptance of these modern artists by comparing them to Debussy and Stravinsky.

Carles was also an organizer of the 1921 Later Tendencies in Art exhibition featuring Joseph Stella, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, and others. Almost 100 American modernists, influenced by Post-Impressionism and Cubism, were presented in a major museum exhibition for the first time. This show also attracted huge crowds and a great deal of press interest, with conservative critics decrying the “crazy, extremist” art. In 1996 PAFA recreated this exhibition in To Be Modern, borrowing over 50 works shown in 1921 and adding appropriate works from the collection. One of the strongest supporters of Later Tendencies was Merion collector Albert C. Barnes. In 1923 he and Carles arranged for a PAFA showing of 75 works Barnes had just acquired. That exhibition closed this groundbreaking series of PAFA displays with a flourish. When local critics vilified the show, especially the Expressionist works of Chaim Soutine, Barnes was furious and began restricting visitation to his collection to all but his chosen guests.

The Illustration Program

The decade of the 1930s was the high point in PAFA's program in illustration, a curriculum that prepared students for careers as book and magazine illustrators. Begun in 1900, in response to the burgeoning need for graphic work in publishing, and by the example of successful illustrators like Maxfield Parrish (who studied the craft outside of his PAFA classes), the illustration course was a rare example of PAFA offering commercial training.

Demonstrations of printing techniques and talks by editors and successful illustrators, such as Joseph Pennell, augmented the coursework. Illustration majors were eligible to compete for the Cresson Travel Scholarship and several Cressons were awarded annually to these students. Their work was reproduced routinely in school catalogs.

During World War II, PAFA students serving in the armed forces used their training in illustration to record wartime scenes. Joe Stefanelli sketched Japanese prisoners of war for YANK magazine in 1945.

World War II Affects PAFA

In 1942-43 more than 70 PAFA students departed for service in the armed forces. Members of the school staff sent art magazines to the men and other interested servicemen, and the soldiers in turn shipped examples of their artwork to PAFA. Many served as illustrators for army or navy magazines; others just sketched when they could.

During the war years, blackout and transport restrictions made large or important exhibitions hard to secure. PAFA relied on displays of small works and local interest topics, as well as five shows featuring the young soldiers’ artwork. Other war-related exhibitions, devoted to posters or cartoons, appeared. A further constraint was the fact that 55 major works from PAFA's collection were stored in a bank vault for the duration, an act prompted by the widespread fear that enemy bombers would attack East Coast cities.

In late 1945 the stored art was returned from Fidelity Bank and exhibited in a display called the Star Presentation. In 1946 PAFA resumed more ambitious exhibitions with a show of paintings by Daniel Garber.

The 150th Anniversary

PAFA's 150th anniversary in 1955 became a national and international celebration. The year began with an exclusive gala opening of the One Hundred and Fiftieth Anniversary Exhibition, which exhibited more than 300 works of art by 25 of America's foremost artists who had ties to PAFA, including Alexander Stirling Calder, Mary Cassatt, William Merritt Chase, and Thomas Eakins. Called by critics the greatest collection of American art, this show captured the spirit of American art in a single showing.

With funding from the U.S. Information Agency, this exhibition represented the nation on an international tour to six European cities, where critics praised its promotion of the understanding that America was not "skyscrapers and factories only" but had "so many openings to the free current of the spirit."

The city, state, and nation joined the many notable events that made up the 150th anniversary. PAFA was featured in an eight-page spread in Life magazine. Thirty million commemorative three-cent postage stamps were sold in the course of the year, with almost 1 million sold and more than 300,000 covers canceled on the first day at a temporary U.S. Postal Service facility set up in PAFA.

The Annual Exhibitions

In 1969, the longest-running event in American museum history concluded with the close of the last PAFA Annual Exhibition. Commencing in 1811, these displays brought more than one hundred thousand works of art to Philadelphia audiences. Partly juried and partly by invitation, the exhibitions reflected a strong European emphasis in the pre-Civil War years, and a primarily American focus after the current building opened in 1876.

Restoration of the Historic Landmark Building

Although the PAFA building was at the height of fashion when it opened in 1876, shifting tastes had condemned its opulence, and by 1950s, many of its more colorful or flamboyant details had been painted or disguised. The mid-1970s saw a comprehensive restoration directed by architect Hyman Meyers.

The entrance and vestibule were rebuilt, approximating Furness and Hewitt's original plan. In the stairhall, wooden railings and doorjambs were scraped and re-stained, the whole area was repainted, complete with gold rosettes and silver leaf stars. In the galleries, linoleum floor tiles were removed, and the then stark, white interior was painted with the original darker Victorian color palette. In the rotunda, the iron and bronze columns were liberated from drywall paneling, and doorways were restored. Modern security and climate-control systems were installed throughout.

Fully restored to its original grandeur, the building stands today as a monument to Philadelphia's artistic, architectural and cultural importance.

Uncovering the Myth of Thomas Eakins

In 1938, Susan Eakins died and the Eakins home was sold. The next year Charles Bregler, a former student of Thomas Eakins, gathered up a large number of drawings, manuscripts, glass plate negatives, and photographs, with the permission of the estate executors who believed all the material to be valueless. Bregler hoarded this collection until 1944, when he sold a part of his holdings, mostly works of art, to Knoedler's in New York (now in the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden). In 1958, the rest of his collection passed into the hands of his widow, Mary Bregler, who also guarded the collection zealously. After several attempts by PAFA staff to examine the material, curator Kathleen A. Foster finally persuaded Mary Bregler to transfer it to PAFA. After a year of negotiations and an appraisal by Sotheby’s, PAFA purchased Charles Bregler’s Thomas Eakins Collection.

This vital acquisition has put PAFA in the center of Eakins studies, and new insights drawn from it have rewritten the story of Eakins’ life. The collection has generated three major PAFA publications, two large-scale Eakins exhibitions and numerous scholarly articles.

Graduate Degree Inaugurated

In 1991 PAFA established the Master of Fine Arts degree. Since its inception, the program enrollment has grown from the original class of 13 to an average of 60 students. This intensive, two-year studio art degree involves daily interaction with an outstanding faculty of resident and visiting artists, as well as regular critiques, seminars in critical readings, an optional written thesis, and presentation of a graduate exhibition. PAFA MFAs have gone on to important teaching and practicing careers at both the national and the international level.  

Celebrating 200 Years

Celebrating its 200th Anniversary in 2005, PAFA was honored to be the first arts institution to receive the National Medal for the Arts, now proudly displayed in the foyer of the Historic Landmark Building. Earlier in the year PAFA opened the new Samuel M.V. Hamilton Building adjacent to the historic museum building, creating an urban fine arts campus that brought the institution into the next century. The PAFA campus is the centerpiece of the streetscape opposite the expanded Pennsylvania Convention Center, presenting PAFA as a top cultural destination to audiences locally, nationally and internationally.

In 2007, PAFA and the Philadelphia Museum of Art jointly purchased Thomas Eakins' The Gross Clinic - a painting significant to the evolution of medical practice in Philadelphia - to prevent it from leaving Philadelphia, Eakins' home town. Over 3,400 donors came forward to secure the purchase. The two institutions now share the painting.

PAFA established the Bachelor of Fine Arts degree which was accredited by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania State Department of Education in 2008. 

Lenfest Plaza Unifies PAFA's Broad Street Buildings

In 2011 Lenfest Plaza was constructed between the Historic Landmark Building and the Samuel M.V. Hamilton building - a space that once connected Cherry and Broad streets. Designed by OLIN, the civic space features a three-part serpentine bench and rotating works of art by emerging and established artists in an urban setting. Shortly after completion, two major works of art were commissioned and installed: Claes Oldenburg's Paint Torch and Jordan Griska's Grumman Greenhouse.

The future of American Art