American Academy

Paraphrased from Thomas S. Cummings, Historic Annals of the National Academy of Design (1865):

In 1802 an institution was proposed under the title of “New York Academy of Fine Arts”—its charter was not granted until 1808, under the modified name “American Academy of Art.” According to Dunlap, the board contained men of every profession except professional artists—its first group of officers did add one artist, John Trumbull, as president. DeWitt Clinton was on the board of directors. Prior to the granting of the charter, the ambassador to France, Robert R. Livingston, sent a number of “casts from the antique” that were exhibited in the Custom-House on Broadway on the first of February 1804 at the admission price of $5. Apparently, this was not a success and the casts were removed to the store of Captain Farquahr in Vessey Street. The institution lay dormant until 1816 (5-6).

On October 25, 1816 an exhibition was organized in the revived “American Academy of Fine Arts” (name change?) housed at the former site of an alms-house. The receipts were beyond expectations; the board of directors began to spend them “as if they had a never failing mine” (7). In December, the bylaws were revised to allow “up to twenty” professional artists, and in January 1817 conceded that “no more than three of the five directors” be elected from this pool of artists. The duties of the directors were elaborated including controlling future exhibitions: “All artists of DISTINGUISHED merit shall be ‘PERMITED’ to exhibit their works,” while “Amateurs shall be INVITED to expose in the gallery of the Academy any of their performances,” which was “highly offensive to the profession.” In 1817, the bylaws were altered to increase the number of board members from five to eleven, placing professional artists in the minority again.

In 1818, Trumbull (still president) offered two of his paintings to the Academy “The Woman Taken in Adultery” and “Suffer Little Children,” along with several smaller pieces that were purchased for the sum of $3500, placing the Academy in debt. It was supposed to have been one cause for the failure of the institution. Another was “That the President opposed the opening of schools” (18).

What occurred during the few following years is not accessible—probably not even on record. The institution was in possession of ample accommodations, furnished gratuitously by the city, a fine collection of casts, and many paintings of high merit—a library, and a direction of influential men; yet it steadily declined.

. . . Where then was the cause of its want of success to be looked for? It was to be found in the unchangeableness of its exhibitions, which was not suited for a novelty seeking public. Its permanency of material was its death. A daily attendance of often not more than three persons, art vigilists, mourned over its expiring moments. At that time the writer was in the habit of spending many hours in its rooms, and frequently without being interrupted. The yearly receipts were insufficient to meet the doorkeeper’s salary—a very modest item. (18)