Philadelphia’s First Nude Model: Charles Wilson Peale

Charles Wilson Peale
Charles Wilson Peale

One of the favorite stories of the art circles of Philadelphia concerns Philadelphia’s favorite artist, Thomas Eakins, and his being removed from his position at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts for removing the loin cloth of a male model in a mixed class.

Trouble over the more sensitive anatomical areas in art was nothing new, even in the 19th Century. If you’ve seen the movie Angels and Demons you know the scene in a hall of statues where Professor Langdon comments that one Pope or another had the penises removed. And who can forget John Ashcroft covering up the bare breasts of some figures in the U.S. Capitol?

Even in Philadelphia, Eakins was not the first artist to go to battle over the cloths that hide parts of the human anatomy.  *An aging Charles Wilson Peale became the city’s first public nude model after several skirmishes and the inability to find a substitute. After a group of weathly students resigned from the Association of Artists of Philadelphia at the suggestion that students be allowed to draw from a nude model, Peale pushed forward and set a date for a live nude model. The model hired, an impoverished baker, finally came out from behind a screen fully clothed and left denouncing the school as an institution of the devil. Undeterred, Peale went behind the screen himself and emerged as the city’s first nude model.

It wasn’t only live nudes Peale encountered problems with, however. Peale had borrowed a replica of Venus de’ Medici from the painter Robert Pine, but was not allowed to show it publicly.

The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts traces its lineage through predecessor organizations to Peale. While Eakins was cast out for removing a loin cloth, it can be seen as the continuation of a battle started by the institutions founder.

*America’s Old Masters, Dover 1967

About Art After X

With the death of President Kennedy in 1963, America changed. As hard as it is to minimize that sentiment, the effect of Dallas was even greater. The same year saw the merging of the Dallas Museum for Contemporary Arts, which had been central to the art scene, and the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. Douglas MacAgy, then the director of DMCA, not only opposed the merger, but also declined to directorship of the combined museum. The regionalist movement which had been strong for decades, was giving way to more of an interest in what was going on nationally, and internationally. Like it or not, Dallas was on the national stage.

When the Kennedy’s arrived in Fort Worth, local collectors had decorated a hotel room with internationally-renowned works. While the president and his wife learned a great deal about the ability of Texans to collect major art, there was little they could glean about the local scene in this era-defining city.

With this in mind, we have begun a project to look not back at the art scene in Dallas, but foreword from 1963. We are interviewing gallery owners, curators and others involved in the art scene then, but this will be a story told mostly through interviews with artists active in the city from that point into the 1980s.

The result will be a book with a video component.

We hope you will join us in our journey. The hashtag for the project is #artafterx and the url will point to the latest updates on this weblog.

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