In The Details

Past Pursuits of Female Artists


A truly surprising sight awaited visitors of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in the mid-1800s: female students. Before the founding of PAFA, women had few opportunities for professional art training in the United States. Even more progressive than Europe at the time, PAFA was the earliest school to allow women to study in classes, and they continued to raise the stakes toward equality across the board.

By 1860, female students could take anatomy courses, though they were forced to draw from antique sculptures of the human form. Even when the school finally allowed women to study live subjects, the male models were required to wear a loincloth. This went on for 6 years as leadership debated whether or not it was appropriate for women to view the male form in full nude when finally, in another bold move toward equality, the loin cloth was removed.

The late 1800s brought about the breaking of additional boundaries by PAFA with the hiring of their first full-time female professor, Cecilia Beaux. An accomplished artist in her own right, Beaux studied for many years in France and, upon her return to America, became one of the most sought-after portraitists in Philadelphia and New York. The inconsistencies in how male artists were treated compared to women was not lost on Beaux, regardless of her success. Beaux once expressed her hope that the time drew near “when the term ‘Women in Art’ will be as strange-sounding a topic as ‘Men in Art’ would be now.”

The memory of Cecilia Beaux lives on as many of her pieces can be seen at PAFA’s museum at the National Historic Landmark Building. Designed by famed Philadelphia architects, Frank Furness and George Hewitt, it was the first structure in the United States specifically designed for fine arts instruction and exhibition. When the building went through recent renovations, DLR Group ensured the historic structure was preserved so that countless students—both men and women in art—could continue to pursue their artistic dreams free of restrictions.

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