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Thursday, November 8, 2012

New York's Art Students League

Cosimo De'Medici and Giorgio Vasari founded
Europe's first art school in 1563, Florence, Italy.
The teaching of young people the ways and means of creating art has been a difficult undertaking for centuries. It still is. There are three reasons for this--art is difficult; the students are difficult; and so too, in many cases, are the instructors who teach them. "In the beginning" as the Bible says (though perhaps not going back quite that far), would-be artists learned their trade one-on-one from other individual artists (often their fathers), helping them in their work--what we would call today "on-the-job-training." Later, a somewhat more efficient method of group instruction developed, in what has come to be known as the apprentice system, where dozens of young men (rarely women) would indenture themselves to a master artist or craftsman to learn "how to" and just as important, "how not to." Then in the 1600s, first in Florence, then later in Rome, Paris, and other developing art centers, there developed universities across Europe. Working artists began to seek government approval and support for a more formal system, which came to be known as academies. These, in various forms, persist today, both as the actual historic institutions and as models for most university art curriculums. It has become known as the "studio system."

The Atelier of Courbet, 1855, Gustave Courbet
However, during the nineteenth century, there began to develop on the side a less formal and less structured, and some would contend a less efficient system for training young artists. In Paris, where it first began, instructors at the Ecole des Beaux-arts (run by the Academy) began moonlighting, taking on students from their academic classes and others in their private studios. This developed into what has come to be known as the "atelier system." Without it, most of the Impressionists would never have had much formal (or informal as it were) art training. In some ways, it was like a hearkening back to the old apprenticeship system albeit under less formal and far less stringent conditions.

A modern day atelier.

For the most part these two systems have coexisted for more than a hundred years, harmoniously, but occasionally competitively, at times with some rancour. The studio system is highly structured with a formal, set curriculum, lots of rules, and a largely conservative, reactionary outlook in line with "protecting" the profession as much as imparting knowledge. (It's often been compared to boot camp.) The atelier system, on the other hand, has merely time, instruction, and facilities. (It's often been derisively compared to summer camp.) Its informality is both a help and a hindrance, allowing students the flexibility to set their own schedules, work at their own pace...or not...all too often, the latter. In one, the student is marched through a course of study, in the other he or she meanders

For its first 40 years the National Academy of Design
had no permanent home. Then after the Civil War,
the academy built this Venetian Gothic structure at
23rd St. and Fourth Avenue.
Starting in 1825, the United States copied England and set up the National Academy of Design in New York under the guidance of such painting names as Thomas Cole, William Cullen Bryant, Samuel F. B. Morse, and architect, Alexander Jackson Davis. Informally at first, then after 1831 in tuition-free formal classes taught by volunteer artists and instructors; they began taking on the best and brightest this nation had to offer in the arts. This continued until the nation-wide financial difficulties marking the 1870s when economic pressure grew to start charging tuition. A fight developed among the directors. In 1875, they reached a "compromise" of sorts, suspending all classes rather than charge tuition or go into debt to avoid doing so. In their stubbornness, they had caused their studio system to collapse. It had never operated under government support and control (as had its European models) and in refusing to adopt the strictly "business" approach of Europe's parallel atelier system, chose instead to dispose of both baby and bath water in one fell swoop. By this time of course, their students numbered in the hundreds. In effect, they were "hung out to dry."

The cockloft, fourth floor, 197 Fifth Avenue,1875
As a result, students took matters into their own hands. They pooled their meagre funds and started their own "school." It wasn't much. They met in a 24'x30' "cockloft" on the fourth floor of a building at 108 Fifth Avenue. They called it the Art Students League. At first there were no instructors, no heat, no course of study, and only occasionally the services of a model. Eventually all these things took care of themselves even as, three years later, the National Academy saw the light, re-instituted classes, and reluctantly started charging admission. Some of their students came back, most did not. The atelier system had struck a chord, freeing them from the ever-increasing stilted outlook they had known before, allowing them the freedom to try new things, and perhaps fail at them with no fear of academic consequences.

The Art Students League, mid-town Manhattan
It was a rough and tumble existence, but the League survived, even flourished. Names such as William Merrit Chase, Kenyon Cox, Thomas Eakins, Daniel Chester French, Childe Hassam, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and John H. Twachtman all taught at the school. Furthermore, a list of their students reads like a "Who's Who" of American art, including Romare Bearden, Thomas Hart Benton, Norman Rockwell, Alexander Calder, George Grosz, Hans Hofmann, Roy Lichtenstein, Reginald Marsh, Louise Nevelson, Georgia O’Keeffe, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and John Sloan. The League developed such innovations as a summer school in Woodstock, New York (1909-1922 and 1947-1979), and one of the earliest "outreach" programs aimed at training students in the public schools. Today, the League is housed in a rather stodgy looking old stone structure at 215 West 57th Street just off Broadway and a couple blocks south of Central Park with a program borrowing the best of both the studio and the atelier systems. It serves over 2,000 students. Meanwhile, further uptown, the National Academy of Art, with largely the same program, has about half that.
The Art Students League also reaches out to artist of the more distant future.


  1. This is a wonderful review. Fascinating reading. I wonder if this blog is aware of the current looming danger to the Art Students League. The group Take Back the League is currently working to avoid a major disaster to this wonderful old institution, which has nurtured almost every American artist of any significance for 140 years. Check out the group's Facebook page: and its website: to learn the details.

  2. Beth--

    Thanks for your comment. I checked out the links you so graciously provided. It sounds like the board is between a rock and a hard place, on the one hand they have a building long-since past its prime, perhaps as much in need of demolition and replacement as the costly repairs. On the other hand, they are in danger of major legal problems if they try to save money by involving staff and students in rectifying these structural dangers as they might have a hundred years ago. Beyond that, the "politics" involved is nothing new, and given the organizational structure of the League, almost to be expected. Democracy is a messy method of management, especially on this scale and with the ridiculously expensive real estate involved. It seems to me better communications and more transparency would help, but from a management point of view, both tend to simply rile the waters making governing an institution like this all the more difficult. In other words, student management and governance that worked in the 20th century may not be practical (or even possible) in the 21st.

    Once again, thanks for adding a new chapter to the material here that's already three years old.