Artist Portraits from the National Academy 

National Academy of Design

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.  

Most think of Morse as the inventor of such 19th technologies as the telegraph and the co-developer of Morse code. However he began his career as a painter, and was one of the Academy’s key founders.

He served as the Academy’s first president, 1826-1845, assuming the role again from 1860-61. He also devoted much energy to expanding the Academy School, its collection, exhibitions and influence.

Morse studied miniature painting at Yale University from 1805-1810. Here Morse signals his eagerness for a career in the arts, presenting himself as a working painter posed before a full sized canvas.

Frazee was the only sculptor to be a charter member of the National Academy, and for many historians, the history of American sculpture begins with him.

Scholar Frederick Voss has suggested that his use of the herm form was inspired by a cast of a bust of Alexander the Great that was in the collection of the American Academy of Fine Arts in the 1820s.

A herm is a statue in the form of a square stone pillar surmounted by a bust or head, especially of Hermes, the ancient Greek god of fertility.

The inscription has never been fully interpreted. However, the Roman numerals are accepted as signifying the 52nd year of the United States’ existence as a nation, that is, 1827.

Durand was among the founders of the Academy and served as its second president from 1845-1861.

Although elected to the Academy as an engraver, Durand was also an active portraitist and landscape painter.

In 1837 he turned to landscapes, following the leadership of Thomas Cole in idealistic interpretations of that subject and becoming the other major figure of the Hudson River School.

Emanuel Leutze and Worthington Whittredge became close friends the day Whittredge arrived to study in Dusseldorf in 1849.

As he recounts in his autobiography, Whittredge was immediately asked to serve as a model for the steersman and for General Washington in Leutze's Washington Crossing the Delaware.

They remained constant companions throughout their years in Europe, and, back in the United States, both artists maintained studios in the Tenth Street Studio Building.

Whittemore and Curran met in New York around 1883 while studying in the studio of Walter Saterlee. Over the next few years they shared studio quarters and attended classes at the National Academy.

In 1888 they traveled together to Paris, where they attended the Académie Julian. Shortly after their arrival Whittemore depicted his friend painting the Venus de Milo in the Louvre.

In the background is the famous Roman copy of the classical Greek sculpture of the Crouching Venus of Tyre and a Roman sarcophagus depicting the myth of Selene and Endymion.

Whittemore's picture directly illustrates how students of the day learned to paint the nude from ancient sculpture.

Sargent's diploma portrait is similar in conception to another, less finished self-portrait painted in 1886 (Aberdeen Art Gallery and Industrial Museum).

In updating his likeness Sargent amended the slender lines of his youthful figure to reflect the slight broadening of maturity. His grey-green eyes also exhibit a different, more probing regard.

The portrait appears direct and quickly executed, with a brushy, feathery touch unlike the more forceful and typical stroke for which he is celebrated.

Along with John Singer Sargent, Cecilia Beaux was one of the leading society portraitists of America’s Gilded Age. This work was executed in her Chestnut Street studio in Philadelphia.

Beaux’s deft presentation of her youthful head and silky dress marks a new confidence in the use of bright, opalescent color and textured, forceful brushwork.

Her face receives the most attention, with a bright light illuminating the forehead. Beaux’s characteristic colored shadows here show a lavender reflection from the garment below.

The canvas is further enlivened by the diagonal flowing pattern of the thinly brushed background. In this work she exudes a true air of confidence and alertness.

Eakins was voted an Associate of the Academy in March 1902. To fulfill the membership requirement, he painted this self-portrait over the course of the next two months.

The only other known self-portrait by Eakins is at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., and was executed in 1902 as a study for the Academy’s portrait.

Unlike the bold confident portrayal in the Hirshhorn painting, the Academy's picture conveys a different impression; one of subdued reserve, his hair and clothing unkempt and face lined by old age.

One interpretation is that the artist’s appearance is a jab at the Academy for waiting so long to welcome him into the organization. He became a full member nine days after submitting this work.

Prellwitz was born to a socially prominent family. Between 1889-1891, she attended the Académie Julian where she studied with William-Adolphe Bouguereau and Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury.

In this work, Prellwitz looks out at the viewer with a strong sense of determination and confidence.

Her sleeves are rolled up to her elbows and her palette and brushes are at the ready on the table beside her.

Over the course of her career, Prellwitz achieved notoriety for her ethereal figure compositions based on literary subjects.

Rand became known as a society portraitist of her time, successfully competing with male portraitists in an age in which few female artists were able to do so.

Her work during the Great Depression provided financial support of her husband and three sons. In 1930 alone she earned over $74,000 from portrait commissions.

In this work she is unmistakably the professional artist at work in her studio, armed with the tools of her profession and making direct eye contact with the viewer in a businesslike manner.

This work depicts a spot behind his father, N.C. Wyeth's, studio in Chadds Ford, PA, and is one of several works dating from the 1940s that centers on a lone individual walking through a field.

The young artist carries what is probably a portfolio under his arm, and looks off into the distance with an intense and troubled expression.

In 1945, his father and three-year-old nephew were killed in a car accident prompting Wyeth to adopt a more somber palette and to choose subjects that reflected his feelings of loss, as seen here.

Albright was elected an Associate in 1942. He requested additional time to complete his self-portrait, which was granted by the Council but six years later had still not finished the work.

After another reminder, Albright responded in 1948: "[...] I worked most of last year on it and would have had it done sooner save that I went thru a major operation at a hospital."

Dickinson's somber-toned, introspective paintings are characterized by complex perspectival spaces and compositional juxtapositions that suggest relationships to both cubism and surrealism.

He often drew on the walls of his studio to work out exercises in perspective as seen here.

Dickinson frequently borrowed this painting from the Academy for faculty exhibitions and presentations, attesting to his fondness of it.

One of the most prominent Regionalist painters, Benton was a prolific lithographer and easel painter and executed a number of mural cycles of expressly American themes.

Benton was elected Associate member of the National Academy only in 1954, after an already extensive and successful career.

He originally satisfied the requirement of membership by submitting a photograph of himself to the Academy. Ten years later, he reconsidered and submitted this self-portrait in 1963.

Few artists of the 20th century exerted as immense an influence over a diversity of fields as Rauschenberg, sensing the limitations of Abstract Expressionism and laying the foundation for Pop Art.

Related to dance images from the 1950s in which the artist captured the human form on light-sensitive paper, the central image of the skeleton derives from x-rays of himself.

This work dates from his involvement with Experiments in Art and Technology (E. A. T.), which brought together artists and engineers to collaborate on performance art that incorporated new technology.

Lawrence rose to prominence during the Harlem Renaissance and saw himself as a community artist, wanting to remain accessible to the African-Americans whose lives and histories he was painting.

Here Lawrence pictures himself with paintbrushes, paint jars, and some of his works visible on the back wall.

Featured are versions of his paintings Tombstones and Builders, and a painting originally executed for the children’s book, “Harriet and the Promised Land,” from the life of Harriet Tubman.

The artist considered the act of building “beautiful in itself,” and expressive of the “creative depths in human nature.”

Close's prints have a direct relationship to his oil portraits; they are based on a grid system. In some, he has employed mezzotint or lithography to define his forms within a grid.

In this work, the areas within the grid resemble dabs of paint and result from his use of ferric acid, applied with a brush over carefully controlled periods of time to produce particular tonalities.

Throughout his career, Saul has tackled controversial subjects like war, racism, capitalism, feminism and homophobia through depictions of cartoonish and grotesque figures, rendered in vivid colors.

All of his self-portraits depict the body caught in the grip of mortifying instincts and erupting emotions, and in recent years have become a startling portrayal of an aging and decaying man.

In 2008 Holland Cotter's New York Times review of Saul's self-portraits stated: “Heads are shown in meltdown, dissolving into fat and sweat, eyes and teeth swimming around in a puddle of fleshy goo.”

Credits: Story

Curator - Diana Thompson

Communications Associate - Harineta Rigatos

Special thanks to our intern Amy King

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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