The Education Of Nineteenth Century Women Artists The formal education of women artists in the United States has taken quite a long journey. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that the workings of a recognized education for these women finally appeared. Two of the most famous and elite schools of art that accepted, and still accept, women pupils are the Philadelphia School of Design for Women and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (the PAFA). Up until the early nineteenth century, women were mostly taught what is now called a “fashionable education” (Philadelphia School of Design for Women 5). Their mothers raised them to be proper, young ladies and expert housekeepers in expectation of marriage.
If these women were fortunate enough to receive some kind of formalized schooling, they were to study penmanship, limited aspects of their mother language, and very little arithmetic (Philadelphia School of Design for Women 5). Unfortunately, this small degree of education was extremely constrictive to women. If they never married or were widowed at a young age, they really had no place to go. This form of women’s education created generations of women that were almost entirely dependent on their husbands and male relatives. During the nineteenth century, when the feminist movement was beginning, many schools were established specifically for the education of women, such as the Philadelphia School of Design for Women, and also for the education of both.
In the beginning, women’s art schools mostly taught pupils practical applications of art. For example, female art students often studied drawing and lithographing, in hopes that they would be hired by industrial companies as designers. The Philadelphia School of Design for Women was one of the first all women’s art schools to establish this form of education. Founded in 1844 by a woman named Sarah Peter, the Philadelphia School of Design for Women was a school like none that had come before it. Peter was a wealthy woman of stature and decided to start this school in one of the rooms of her mansion and to hire a teacher to hold regular classes for women in art and design. (As a wonderful incentive for all women, tuition was free for the poor and the wealthy paid a very small sum.) Sarah Peter saw how truly poor the traditional education for women was and she strongly believed that every woman should “stand by her sex,” thus her reasoning for establishing this soon to become famous art school.
As Peter saw it, she wished to give young women “some practical training, .. should [they] so desire or the necessity arise, for well paying self support,” (qtd. in Philadelphia School of Design for Women 6). In addition to her personal feelings, she had a very specific reason for starting the Philadelphia school – train women to create designs for the city’s industrial lines, such as textiles, lithographing, wood engraving, floor coverings, and furniture. From this point on, Peter devoted the rest of her life to overseeing the School and also traveled around the U.S.
to establish art schools, like the Philadelphia, in other cities (Philadelphia School of Design for Women 6-11). The Philadelphia School of Design for Women originally had three departments from which young women could take classes: drawing, industrial, and wood engravings/lithography. The majority of the women were instructed within the drawing department, in which pupils made copies of original compositions and applied coloring and shading. From here on, depending on the instructor, they would progress toward drawings from casts and life (Philadelphia School of Design for Women 23-24). The industrial department showed the women applications of drawing, shading, and coloring to the art of design.
Surprisingly, these designs and patterns created by the women of the Philadelphia School were secured under copyright law for some time (Philadelphia School of Design for Women 24). In the third department, lithography/wood engraving, women were taught drawing on stone and carving in wood. During the first years of the school, the actual printing was done on school grounds. However, in later years, most printing was done outside the school by contract. Due to the beauty and perfection of the pupils’ works, very soon after the School’s establishment, several of the students’ lithographs were used in floral brochures, such as the “Philadelphia Florists’ and Horticultural Journal” (Philadelphia School of Design for Women 26-27). During the 1850s and 1860s, the Philadelphia School flourished.
It was moved several times to larger buildings with better lighting and many more teachers were hired to instruct the growing number of women who wished to attend (there were over 100 total women admitted to the School by 1852) (Philadelphia School of Design for Women 24-25). Many of the industrial firms in the Philadelphia area began to put orders in to the school for ironwork, paper hangings, calico prints, and woven textiles. And amazingly, the women pupils were given three-quarters of any money they received for their work done at the school that sold to these industrial firms (Philadelphia School of Design for Women 40). In 1853, an official charter was granted for the school – a board of directors, officers, and a board of Lady Managers were elected (Philadelphia School of Design for Women 34). An interesting and ironic note can be made concerning the new charter: after everything, men still managed everything (the Lady Managers still had to obtain authority from the male board of directors).
It was stated in the charter that the board of directors had to be “12 gentlemen.” The incorporators of the newly public school still followed the custom of that time in denying representation in direction to the very people that the school was to benefit, the Women. It wasn’t until 56 years after the Philadelphia School’s first charter, in 1909, that an amendment was granted making the Board consist of certain members “who may either by men or women,” (Philadelphia School of Design for Women 34-37). In 1860, a man named James Dundas (a very wealthy man who lived in a mansion quite close to the School) began sending flowers to the school daily from his extensive hothouses, to be used by the pupils in drawing and painting from nature (Philadelphia School of Design for Women 60). During this same time, the School was extremely prosperous and began to return the favor by donating some of its own flowers, fruits, antiques, figures, casts from life, and sketches/diagrams to other women’s art schools, such as those in Pittsburgh, Wilkes-Barre, and Millersville (Philadelphia School of Design for Women 63). The Philadelphia School of Design for Women had an enormous impact on the growth of education of women artists during its time. Many of the women who attended the Philadelphia School graduated and were immediately hired by industrial firms (e.g., Warner, Howell & Brother, the Pennypack Print Works) as designers or were hired by the School as teachers for the new pupils (Philadelphia School of Design for Women 63). And during 1877, a series of gold medals were awarded to the School’s pupils who submitted original designs with “refined artistic taste.” (Eventually, the President of the School decided to award prizes regularly, so as to push women to study even harder) (Philadelphia School of Design for Women 67-68).
In the year 1932, this school merged with the Moore Institute of Art, Science, and Industry and remains, to this day, one of the only art schools that grants bachelor’s degrees in art. Yet another art school that changed the education of women artists is the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The Academy was founded in 1805 by Charles Wilson Peale, William Rush, and other artists and business leaders of Philadelphia. It is the oldest art museum and school in the nation (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts). During the first half of the nineteenth century, the Academy only admitted male students, but later women pupils, as well.
The Academy’s primary instruction when it was first incorporated was the study of casts of classical statues in the Louvre (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts). It continued educating its students in a classical manner and drawing from the live nude model was introduced around 1812, followed in succeeding decades by figure modeling and portrait classes. One of the most famous aspects of the Academy’s drawing and sculpture program began in the 1880s, by the hands of a man named Thomas Eakins (McKinney 16). A new kind of study was introduced to help the pupils with their instruction – anatomy. The Academy was very well known for is anatomy program, which had pupils dissecting cadavers and animals in order to gain a truly comprehensive knowledge of life from which to draw and sculpt from (McKinney 16).
A most interesting fact surrounding the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts concerns the start of drawing from life, from the nude. During its beginnings, there was significant controversy surrounding the allowance of nudes for life drawing at the Academy, especially for women. Male models were allowed to pose completely nude for men’s drawing classes but had to wear a loincloth when posing for women’s classes. And the women who stood for life drawing classes were always made to wear a mask over their faces, so as to sustain “morality.” Thomas Eakins, who was a student at the Academy and later a teacher and director completely ignored this fact. A Philadelphia newspaper from 1886 once said that, “Mr.
Eakins has for a long time entertained and strongly inculcated the most ‘advanced’ views .. teaching large classes of women as well as men, he holds that, both as to the living model in the drawing room and the dead subject in the anatomical lecture and dissecting room, Art knows no sex,” (Porter 23). Eakins taught many life drawing classes for both women and men, often receiving much criticism from the public. He wanted to give his students as much knowledge of the human body and anatomy as possible (McKinney 16). Around 1886, Eakins was teaching a women’s life drawing class and wished to show them the origin of a certain muscle in the male body – thus, he removed the loincloth from the posing male model. Afterwards, Eakins was confronted by the other directors of the Academy, due to their belief that exposing the female students to such immortality devastated their femininity, and asked to justify and apologize for his behavior.
He refused to and was thus forced to resign from the Academy (Porter 22-23). However, after his resignation, many of Eakins’ pupils followed him (including women) to be instructed solely by him. The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, although not as customized for women as the Philadelphia School, had much influence over the formal education of women artists, especially in the area of life drawing. There are many famous women artists who were taught at and inspired by the Academy during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, such as Mary Cassatt and Cecilia Beaux (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts). The nineteenth century brought many changes to the world of art for women.
A formal education for future women artists finally became available, and many new opportunities for careers in art were unleashed. Two of the most prominent art schools that catered to female pupils are the Philadelphia School of Design for Women and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, which both still exist today. These two schools introduced women artists to drawing, sculpture, lithography, life drawing, and even anatomy. The mark that these two fine schools made on the women’s world of art will never be forgotten. Arts Essays.