In 1825, a group of artists and architects including Thomas Cole, Rembrandt Peale, Ithiel Town, Samuel F. B. Morse, Asher B. Durand, and others formed what would soon become the National Academy. Modeled after the Royal Academy in London, the National Academy was founded with the simple yet powerful mission to “promote the fine arts in America through instruction and exhibition.”
For the very first time in this country, an arts institution was conceived with artists and architects at its core. The founders of the National Academy believed that the practice and exhibition of fine art could flourish outside of the aristocratic patronage system. Their new egalitarian institution would aim for the highest echelons of artistic expression with an inclusive philosophy, enriching and educating new generations of artists and architects while preserving and sharing their work with the public.
The Academy continues to preserve and foster the visual arts in America. Through a program of exceptional exhibitions in the Museum and quality instruction in the School, the Academy serves as a link to the art of our past, as well as a bridge to the art of our present and future.
History of the Building.
For the first 40 years of its existence the National Academy had no permanent home. The earliest exhibitions were held at 287 Broadway and in rooms over the Arcade Baths at 39 Chambers Street. Soon thereafter, the Academy occupied Clinton Hall, where the Annual exhibitions were held until 1840. Between 1841 and 1865 the Academy occupied buildings at Broadway and Leonard Street, and later at 663 Broadway.
In 1860 a building site at 23rd Street and Fourth Avenue (now Park Avenue South) was purchased for the erection of the first permanent home of the Academy. Designed by architect Peter B. Wight, the structure was a Venetian Gothic Revival building; it opened in 1865 and housed the offices, school, and exhibition facilities. A New York City landmark, the building was sold in 1899 to the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company.
Between 1900 and 1940 the Academy was again without a permanent home. The School was located at 109th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, while the Annual exhibitions were held in the galleries of the American Fine Arts Society. Plans had been developed by the leading architectural firm of Carrère and Hastings for a large structure to be built in upper Manhattan, but were never realized because of financial and logistical problems.
In 1942 the Academy opened the doors at its current headquarters, a Beaux Arts-style mansion on the Millionaires Row portion of Fifth Avenue at 89th Street. The mansion was originally the home of Archer Milton Huntington (1870-1955) and his wife, sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington (1876-1973). Huntington was the heir to the fortune amassed by his father, railroad magnate Collis Huntington, an owner of the Central Pacific and Southern Pacific railroads, among others. A major philanthropist, Archer Huntington was also a naturalist and a scholar who specialized in Spanish history, art, and literature. He is best remembered as the founder of the Hispanic Society in New York City, the Mariners Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and, with his wife, Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina.
In 1902, Archer Huntington purchased several properties along Fifth Avenue between 89th and 90th streets, including a comparatively small house at number 1083. In 1913, he hired the architect and interior designer Ogden Codman, Jr., to enlarge the house, turning it into the mansion it is today. Codman, who was a colleague and friend of Edith Wharton, tripled the size of the residence by adding a large wing at the back, opening onto 89th Street. He remodeled the existing interiors in the French Renaissance Revival and Neo-Grec styles he favored. The second floor was designed for entertaining; on the third floor were the living quarters for Archer Huntington; and, after his marriage, in 1923, his wife had a five-room suite on the fourth floor. A number of small bedrooms for the more than 25 servants were located on the fifth and sixth floors. An expansive space on the fifth floor, which had a large skylight, was refitted as the sculpture studio for Anna Huntington.
The Huntingtons lived in this house until 1939, when they gave the building and surrounding properties to the National Academy, of which Anna Hyatt Huntington was a member and of which both were very supportive. The couple then moved to their country estate. Following Archer Huntington’s death, in 1955, Mrs. Huntington maintained a studio and a small apartment in the Academy’s building until shortly before her death at the age of 97.
Funded by generous bequests from Eleanor D. Popper, a former student of the School, and author Geoffrey Wagner in memory of his wife, National Academician Colleen Browning Wagner, an American realist painter, the Academy’s newly renovated spaces opened in September of 2011.
The renovation revitalized the Academy’s entrance on Fifth Avenue, included new student and faculty galleries, enhanced the second- and fourth-floor galleries and expanded the public assembly space. The renovation was conceived to encourage interaction with the public, honoring the history of the Academy while reorienting it as a thriving, outward-facing institution.
A building committee, headed by architect Bruce Fowle, NA, of FXFOWLE Architects, President of the Academy, oversaw the renovations, which were designed by the architecture firm of Bade Stageberg Cox.
The Academy’s renovation took its aesthetic inspiration from the original Huntington Mansion. Conceptually, the renovations emphasized the intimate sensibility and domestic scale of the mansion, while creating a dynamic, 21st-century experience for visitors.
History of the Academy School.
One of the primary intentions of the founders of the National Academy was that it would serve as an art school for the training of aspiring professional artists. There were few public art galleries and no art schools in New York at the time.
The first session of the National Academy School commenced on November 15, 1826, in the Old Alms House at City Hall Park in lower Manhattan, with two Academicians and twenty students sketching by candlelight. During its early years of operation, groups of young artists met with established professionals to draw from plaster casts of antique sculpture, a centuries-old academic tradition. In addition to practical training, a portion of the original educational program was devoted to lectures given by such distinguished figures as William Cullen Bryant, Gulian C. Verplanck, and Alexander Jackson Davis, on topics that included anatomy, perspective, ancient history, architecture, and mythology.
In 1837 the Academy added life classes—drawing from live models—to its curriculum for advanced male students. A life class for women, however, was not instituted until 1857, even though women had always been allowed membership in the Academy and were frequent contributors to its Annual exhibitions. In fact, in 1831 the Academy Council had opened antique classes for women. Subsequent classes for women were held sporadically from that time on until, in the 1870s, women constituted about one-third of the student body, a proportion that increased throughout the 20th-century.
At the turn of the century the Academy School adopted the European atelier system—a critical turning point. The atelier system gives students the option of concentrating their instruction under a specific master. The school rapidly grew in stature and reputation, attracting students such as Winslow Homer, George Inness, Arshile Gorky, and Willem de Kooning.
Today the National Academy School continues to offer studio-based study in an intimate, creative environment under the mentorship of working faculty artists, supporting the artistic journey of each student.