The National Academy of Design, Feb. 1980
By Barbara Ball Buff
When Philadelphia ceased to be the capital of the United States in 1800 artists who had been attracted to the city by the prospect of portrait commissions from public figures turned to the booming port of New York. There newly wealthy merchants eagerly sought to have their portraits painted and for the first time developed a taste for paintings other than portraits. At first artists attempted to satisfy this new market with history paintings, but finding these to have too limited an appeal they turned to landscapes. The latter were received enthusiastically as both painters and patrons became aware of the vastness of the continent and the limitless opportunity it implied.
Given the existence of this art-buying public, it is not surprising that the National Academy of Design was founded in New York. It grew out of the New York Drawing Association, which was formed in November 1825 in resentful reaction to the American (originally the New York) Academy of Fine Arts. The latter, composed of civic leaders more concerned with the appreciation than the creation of art, lacked a sympathetic attitude to the needs of younger artists. The new institution was first called the National Academy of the Arts of Design, and then, in 1828, chartered in New York State as the National Academy of Design, the name it retains today. Membership in the new Academy was restricted to professional painters, sculptors, architects, and engravers, to distinguish it from the American Academy of Fine Arts, which also admitted poets, musicians, landscape gardeners, and actors.
Despite vicissitudes during its first twenty-five years the National Academy of Design planned exhibitions, organized an art school, and formed one of the first art libraries in the United States. Its exhibitions, the first in America consisting only of previously unexhibited works by living artists, were so well attended that admission receipts covered school and exhibition expenses. The shows increased public awareness of contemporary American art to such a degree that by mid-century New York was a market receptive enough to support dealers in both European and American art, the American Art-Union, and increasing numbers of working artists.
The Academy has consistently held to a fairly conservative view of the philosophy and practice of art, and its influence has varied over the years depending on the current implication of the term “academic art.”
Most of America’s important artists have been elected to membership in the Academy. Within a year of election an associate is required to submit either a self-portrait or portrait of himself by another artist. Once he is a full-fledged academician the artist presents another work, known as a diploma piece. In this way the Academy’s storerooms have become the repository of an invaluable collection of more than three thousand objects, many of which have never been exhibited. A series of exhibitions is under way that will begin to bring this history of American art into the galleries of the Academy.
The first exhibition-of figure paintings-from which almost all the illustrations on these pages were drawn will be on view at the Academy until February 24 and then will travel to other museums around the country. It was organized by the students of William H. Gerdts, director of the Ph. D. program in art history at the City University of New York.
I am grateful to Barbara Krulik, curatorial assistant of the National Academy of Design, and Stephan Edidin for their assistance in the preparation of this article.