In 1825, the National Academy was founded by artists and architects whose mission was to “promote the fine arts in America through instruction and exhibition.” It combined membership, a drawing school and exhibition opportunities in its Annual Exhibitions, and artists and architects were elected to membership by their peers. As the Academy’s bylaws evolved, it was decided that the newly elected members, called Associates, would donate a portrait of themselves — either a self-portrait or one created by someone else. Upon advancing to the level of National Academician, members were required to contribute a representational example of their work. Known as “diploma pieces,” these submissions grew over time to form one of the largest collections of American painting, sculpture, and works on paper in the country.
As a result, the National Academy Museum has a collection of over 1,200 artist portraits. This includes likenesses of many of America’s best known artists and architects of the 19th and 20th centuries. With the enactment of the portrait submission requirement, the institution embraced one of the major purposes of an art academy, which is to draw special attention to artists of exceptional talent. The desire to memorialize the artist and architect members follows a long tradition, originating in the Renaissance, of honoring notable, distinguished or great individuals by recording and displaying their likenesses. In 1994, the Academy eliminated the category of Associate membership and, with it, the portrait requirement. However, some members elected since then have still chosen to submit a self-portrait as their diploma piece, adding to the National Academy’s impressive and important cache of portraits in a variety of media that spans more than one-and-a-half centuries of artistic styles and conventions.
Curator - Diana Thompson
Communications Associate - Harineta Rigatos
Special thanks to our intern Amy King