The comeback: The National Academy reopens with six new exhibitions

Editorial Staff Exhibitions

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, September/October 2011 |

The National Academy reopens with six exhibitions designed to reclaim its pivotal role in American art and architecture.

Many who stroll along New York’s Museum Mile surely break their stride at the handsome Beaux Arts facade at 1083 Fifth Avenue, just to the north of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. They slow down to read “National Academy Museum” on the narrow bronze sign over the doorway. But it is likely that relatively few of these observers understand the profound historic significance of the institution or guess at the richness of the collections housed behind the curved limestone bay of the former Archer M. Huntington mansion.

For almost a century after its establishment in 1825, the Na­tional Academy of Design, as it was called until 1997, was the hub of American art. “It is the American École des Beaux-arts,” wrote the commentator in Moses King’s massive Handbook of New York in 1892, “the American equivalent of the Royal Academy and of the [Paris] Salon…the spring and autumn exhibitions of the National Academy, in May and November, are the leading art events of the year.”*

The initials “N.A.” after an artist’s name lent enormous cachet, and over the years, the academy’s membership included the preeminent names in American painting, sculpture, and architecture, from its founding fathers, Samuel F. B. Morse, Thomas Cole, and Asher B. Durand, to Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Frank Lloyd Wright, and William Glack­ens. With the advent of modernism in the twentieth century a shift in taste and aesthetics increasingly marginalized the National Academy, as well as its European counterparts. Critics dismissed it as con­servative, even irrelevant, despite the membership of such contemporary luminaries as Chuck Close, Helen Frankenthaler, Frank Gehry, and Cesar Pelli. By the second half of the last century the National Academy found itself in the unenviable position of being venerable but not venerated.

In 2008, after running at a rising deficit and borrowing from its endowment, the academy made a desperate decision to raise operating monies by selling two Hudson River school paintings from its permanent collection. Those funds kept the doors from closing, but the sale brought sanctions from the Association of Art Mu­seum Directors-equivalent to professional excommu­nication.

In the ensuing three years, the academy board worked hard to redraft the constitu­tion, reorganize finances, and put the institution on a more stable and prudent footing. The realist painter, trompe-l’oeil muralist, and printmaker Richard Haas served as the academy president during that pe­riod, playing a crucial role in helping to define its new direction. “My steward­ship offered me greater insight into how the mu­seum and art worlds function, and the National Academy’s relationship to that world,” he says. “But our goal of preserving our institution while rein­vigorating it could not have been accomplished if my artist colleagues had not pulled together so effectively.”

Last October, in recognition of this effort, the Association of Art Museum Directors lifted its sanc­tions. And this month, after being closed for fourteen months to undergo a $3.5 million renovation (funded by recent bequests and donations), the National Academy reopens its doors with six celebra­tory exhibitions that will run through December 31. Culled from its extensive permanent collection of more than seven thousand works of art and archi­tecture, the exhibitions feature nearly two centuries of work by National Academicians.

One of the academy’s chief goals is to emphasize the importance of its current membership, which celebrated the induction earlier this year of thirty-two new academicians, the largest number in a decade. Moreover, at its last annual meeting the membership voted to open membership to instal­lation artists and photogra­phers as well as to artists in other emerging areas.

Of the six new exhibitions, the largest is the salon-style An American Collection, comprised of some one hundred paintings by mem­bers who essentially forged the path taken by American art from 1820 through the 1970s. The exhibition em­phasizes the place the acad­emy has occupied in the American art world. A complementary exhibition, The Artist Revealed: A Panorama of Great Artist Portraits draws on the academy’s collection of more than one thousand portraits to celebrate the central position of portraiture in American painting and sculpture. Marshall Price, one of the academy’s two curators, observes that, “Because most of our collec­tion consists of gifts from the academicians themselves, we are uniquely able to present an ‘artist’s eye view’ of the history of American art and architecture.”

* Moses King, King’s Handbook of New York City (Boston, 1892; reprinted Barnes and Noble, New York, 2001), pp. 278-279.


All six exhibitions are mounted against the back­drop of the National Academy’s newly reno­vated interiors by architect Jane Stageberg and de­signer Abbott Miller. The lobby is now a sleek, well-equipped orientation center, its new ceiling engraved with the names of academicians dating back to 1826, with space for future additions.

On the second floor the once-crumbling walls of the exhibition galleries have either been resurfaced or replaced to provide a more flexible backdrop for art, with new, more versatile track lighting. To maintain the rooms’ historic character, fireplaces, door surrounds, and crown moldings have been preserved and restored, as have the superb cast-brass doorknobs and fittings. Additional renovations have been carried out in the Academy School to create new and welcoming areas for student and faculty exhibitions as well as public and professional programs and conferences.

Fig. 5                                                                           Fig. 6

A noteworthy history

In 1802 the word “museum” usually meant a col­lection of scientific curiosities rather than a re­pository of fine art. That year New York’s mayor, Edward Livingston, became president of the newly formed New York Academy of the Fine Arts, an organization run by businessmen who considered artists too impractical to run it themselves. Deter­mined to provide appropriately classical models for artists and students to copy, Robert R. Livingston (Edward’s brother) ordered a set of plaster casts of statuary in the Louvre. And to lend the new institu­tion additional cachet, he invited France’s First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte to accept the first honorary membership. Napoleon (who did not become emperor until 1804) not only accepted, but also presented the academy with a reference library including books of drawings and a twenty-four-volume set of Piranesi’s etchings. The plaster heroes and deities arrived the following year and were in­stalled in the Greenwich Street building known as the Pantheon, where the public was invited to feast its eyes. But public interest waned, and because few investors were willing to purchase shares in the en­terprise, the New York Academy foundered.

In 1817 Mayor DeWitt Clinton revived it as the American Academy, exhibiting the plasters in the Old Alms House behind City Hall, surrounded with Napoleon’s Piranesi prints and paintings by Benjamin West and John Trumbull lent by private owners. His appointment of Trumbull as president proved less wise. Snobbish and arrogant, Trumbull reasoned that as there had been no plaster casts available to him when he began to study painting, young upstarts had no right to them now.

Trumbull’s antipathy so angered the community of young artists that in 1825 a group of them led by the rising young painter Samuel F. B. Morse formed their own organization, the New York Drawing As­sociation, to provide a place for young artists to study. The following year its name was changed to the National Academy of Design. Most signifi­cantly, the new National Academy membership was composed entirely of artists. Morse was elected its first president, Henry Inman, vice president, and John Ludlow Morton, secretary.

Modeled on the Royal Academy in London, the National Academy aimed from its inception to estab­lish a high standard of artistic professionalism in the UnitedStates by holding annual exhibitions of new work. The National Academy School allowed students and younger professional artists to draw from casts under the supervision of established professionals. Regular lectures were given by eminent figures such as the poet William Cullen Bryant and the influential Gothic-revival architect Alexander Jackson Davis.

Meanwhile, the academy faced the challenge of finding a permanent home. After decades of moving around in the vicinity of lower Broadway, it raised sufficient funds to erect a permanent building at the corner of East Twenty-Third Street and Fourth Avenue opposite Madison Square. In 1899, how­ever, the increasingly valuable land was sold and the building razed to make way for the Metropolitan Life Insurance tower.

After that the National Academy School occupied a temporary home near the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine until 1939 when Archer M. Huntington, husband of the celebrated sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington, N.A., bequeathed his Fifth Avenue town house and the adjoining properties to the academy, its home today.

The treasure within

Fig. 8                                                                  Fig. 9

The academy’s current exhibitions reveal the variety and significance of the collection. Not surprisingly, they include a host of famous names: two fine works by Morse, Thomas Eakins’s late self-portrait with its Rembrandt-like sense of resignation, works by Cole, Chase, Church, Cropsey, Durand, and Sargent. Among the unexpected treasures is a tiny, explosive sunset by the elderly Hudson River landscapist Ralph Blakelock, painted on the lid of a cigar box during his last years in an insane asylum, and a vivid oil study of George Washington’s head by Emanuel Leutze in preparation for his emblem­atic 1851 canvas, Washington Crossing the Delaware (Fig. 14). Here, too, is the American symbolist Elihu Vedder’s haunting tondo, Jane Jackson, For­merly a Slave, painted in 1865 (Fig. 13).

Less familiar figures offer further revelations: a heroic marble bust of Morse in old age, his sensi­tively carved beard cascading down his chest like that of Michelangelo’s Moses, is the work of the gifted Irish-born Launt Thompson, who sculpted Civil War monuments throughout the country. In contrast is the informality of John Koch’s 1953 portrait of the late Vogue editor Leo Lerman sur­rounded by Louis XV furnishings and impression­ist works.

Fig. 13                                                              Fig. 14

Other eye-catchers include Frank Tenney John­son’s moonlit Southern Night (Fig. 15) and Edwin Howland Blashfield’s intensely pre-Raphaelite Saint Michael (undated). Meticulous tempera self-portraits and landscapes by N. C. Wyeth (Fig. 8), his son Andrew Wyeth, and Andrew’s son James “Jamie” Wyeth exhibit three generations of the refined draftsmanship and twilit rural loneliness that have created a constant demand for their work. The tempera medium favored by N.C. Wyeth is used with similar precision but a different spirit by George Tooker in his Voice II (1972).


Fig. 15                                                                                  Fig. 16

These contemporaneous influences repeatedly suggest a sense of community amongst the academi­cians of each generation. For instance, while Thomas Wilmer Dewing is known for wraithlike angels and spare indoor scenes of modern life, his early canvas The Sorcerer’s Slave (Fig. 16) offers a nude study of a slender youth with all the complex contraposto and sinewy musculature of an Eakins. If Thomas Hart Benton’s fairly late self-portrait of 1963 (Fig. 9) captures a pointed sternness not usually found in his virile, often humorous paint­ings of the New Deal era, we can see that earlier and more familiar Bentonian influence in the 1941 self-portrait of Peter Hurd (1904-1984) posed in a “ten-gallon” hat before a looming prairie rain cloud (a work not in the current rotation of the exhibition as of this writing). And the somewhat waxy round­ness of flesh and limbs we often see in American realist painting between the world wars links Isabel Bishop’s 1934 Nude (Fig. 19) to both the two wist­ful young women in Abraham Leon Kroll’s 1938 The Conversation (Fig. 20) and the tumbling figures in Reginald Marsh’s wry Barrel of Fun (Fig. 21).

Fig. 19                              Fig. 20                                         Fig. 21

Whether showcasing the work of past academicians or present ones, the exhibitions underscore the re­vitalization of the academy’s mission to blend its historic legacy with the central position its members occupy in today’s art world. To be sure, fiscal chal­lenges remain, but with its distinctive and growing artistic community, its museum and its school, the National Academy is uniquely positioned to offer the nation a living history of American art.


An American Collection and The Artist Revealed will run concurrently with the following four exhibitions at the National Academy.

Parabolas to Post-Modern: Selections of Post-War Architecture from the Acad­emy’s Collection reveals the academy’s less familiar archive of architec­tural work. Including pieces by Frank O. Gehry, Philip Johnson, I. M. Pei, Cesar Pelli, Eero Saarinen, Laurinda Spear, Robert A. M. Stern, and Rafael Viñoly, it documents the evolution of American architecture over the last seventy years.

Contemporary Selections: Aligning Abstraction showcases the Diploma presentations of five younger academicians: Bill Jensen, Harriet Kor­man, Melissa Meyer, Judith Murray, and Stephen Westfall.

National Academicians: Then and Now traces the develop­ment of four artists-Elizabeth Catlett, Janet Fish, Malcolm Morley, and Joan Snyder-and architect Thom Mayne. By linking their Diploma presentations with more recent work the show illustrates the ongoing role they play in the development of American art and architecture.

Will Barnet at 100 is the first New York museum retrospective of this artist and instructor, who continues to be an influence in the art world today.