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Students at the National Academy of Design's Life School

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Students at the National Academy of Design's Life School

Artist: Charles Loring Elliott (American, 1812-1868)

Date: 1852
Medium: Graphite on wove paper
Overall: 6 1/16 × 6 3/4in. (15.4 × 17.1cm)
Signed: Recto, lower right (graphite): "Elliott / National Academy_1852"
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 94.1
Text Entries

In the spring of 1850 at the National Academy of Design’s annual exhibition Elliott exhibited twelve oil portraits, the largest collection of works he ever displayed there. Elliott had been elected an academician four years earlier and enjoyed great renown at this time. As the author Charles E. Lester wrote, “Elliott stands unquestionably at the head of the portrait painters of his time.”(1)

Two years later, at the May 1852 annual meeting of the National Academy of Design’s academicians, Elliott was elected to the academy’s council. At the same meeting Asher B. Durand noted in his annual report as president that the “management of the Schools, which for two previous years have been left in the hands of the students, has been resumed by the Academy.” Moreover, he recommended that “one or more from the body of academicians should be appointed as visitors to give instruction and maintain order.”(2) Shortly before classes began that fall the council asked fourteen academicians to superintend the school’s classes in a weekly rotation (3) but, as Thomas Cummings lamented, their “attendance was as sparse as ever.”(4)

Elliott was not one of the rotating visitors at the school. However, the inscription on the MWPI drawing suggests he may have served as an instructor or monitor at least once. He chaired the council meeting when the academicians were assigned and may have felt a responsibility to supervise the school when one of the visitors was absent.(5) At an evening class in November or December 1852 when Elliott made the MWPI drawing, he sketched small profile and three-quarter portraits of some of the students who were then attending the life school.(6) All of them were shown with their heads bowed, probably drawing on the type of boards seen in front of two of the figures in the center of the sheet.


1. C[harles] E[dwards] L[ester], “Charles Loring Elliott," Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 38, December 1868, 47.

2. National Academy of Design Council Minutes, May 12, 1852, National Academy Archives, New York. See Jonathan P. Harding, “Charles Loring Elliott,” in An American Collection: Painting and Sculpture from the National Academy of Design, ed. Abigail Booth Gerdts (New York: National Academy of Design, 1989), 42.

3. The names are listed in “Instructors and Lecturers at the National Academy Schools: 1826-1917," in Lois Marie Fink and Joshua C. Taylor, Academy: The Academic Tradition in American Art (Washington, D.C.: National Collection of Fine Arts, 1975), 112-13.

4. Thomas S. Cummings, Historic Annals of the National Academy of Design (Philadelphia: George W. Childs, 1865), 235.

5. National Academy of Design Minute Book, October 25, 1852, 3, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., microfilm 798.

6. There are three erased profiles in the lower right quadrant of the drawing. The fourteen students enrolled in the academy’s life school in the fall of 1852 were James A. Alexander, [George?] D. Brewerton, Edward Englehard [?], Alfred Sealey [?], Augustus Hoppin, Franklin How1and, John B. Irving, William S. S. [Lyon?] Jewett, S. S. Lawton, William T. Mathews, William P. Morgan, Aaron D. Shattuck, William Ver Bryck, and George H. Yewell. I am grateful to David B. Dearinger, associate curator of paintings and sculpture at the National Academy of Design, for this information from the unpublished “National Academy of Design School Register.” The life school’s total enrollment this year was listed in Cummings, Historic Annals, 357.


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