Times & Places

National Academy of Design (New York, NY)

The National Academy of Design was founded in 1825 as a professional art school with an annual exhibition. During his twenty-year tenure as Academy president, Samuel F. B. Morse shaped the Academy after the British Royal Academy. The National Academy of Design was run by artist-members, who taught at the Academy’s school, juried an annual contemporary art exhibition alongside critics, and collected artworks for the Academy’s collection. It was the first institution in the United States that was established and controlled by artists. Its artist-run structure was intended to provide a new sphere for American artists outside of the elite, aristocratic patronage systems that strongly influenced its European pendants like the British Royal Academy and the French École des Beaux Arts.

Like its European counterparts, the National Academy of Design came to be seen as too rigid a tastemaker for modern artists in the 1870s. Just as the Impressionists formed new exhibitions outside of the French École des Beaux Arts, and the Grosvenor Gallery displayed the works of artists who were not supported by the British Royal Academy, the National Academy of Design became passé in the 1870s. In the 1870s, both the Art Students League and the Society of American Artists would form as alternate exhibition spaces and schools. Notable members of the Academy have included George Inness, Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, William Merritt Chase, John Singer Sargent, Frederick Edwin Church, Winslow Homer,Thomas Eakins, Willem de Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler, Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Rauschenberg, and Frank Lloyd Wright.

In the 20th century, the Academy school turned to a European style studio system, like the Art Students League. As of 1994, artists can no longer apply for membership, but are chosen by their peers. In 2016, the Academy sold its historic Fifth Avenue spaces. It still functions as a school, with plans to reopen its museum in a new space. Current Academicians include Kerry James Marshall, Barbara Takenaga, Martin Puryear, Kay WalkingStick, Byron Kim, Maya Lin, Renzo Piano, Cindy Sherman, Carrie Mae Weems, I. M. Pei, and Richard Serra.

Rebecca Singerman, 2018-2019 McDermott Graduate Intern for American Art

Drawn from

  • DMA unpublished material.

  • "Historical Overview," National Academy of Design, accessed December 7, 2018, https://www.nationalacademy.org/historical-overview/.

Fun Facts

  • In the early 19th century, design was considered the best translation of the French word “dessin,” or drawing. The devotion to drawing reflected the organization’s focus on traditional fine arts, including painting, sculpture, engraving, and architecture.

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