This post comes to us from Sara Cotter, Curatorial Intern.
All three of the Weirs represented in the exhibition, The Weir Family, 1820-1920: Expanding Traditions in American Art (on view in the McKernan Gallery from June 30th until September 30th) had a profound impact on the development of American art education in the 19th century. Robert Walter Weir, John Ferguson Weir and Julian Alden Weir all served as art instructors to the generation of young artists who defined American art in the 19th century and into the 20th, and who established this country’s reputation internationally. Robert, the patriarch of the family, was the head Drawing Instructor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point for forty-two years, John became the first Director of the School of Fine Arts at Yale University, and Julian, armed with his formal training from the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, served as an art instructor at several institutions after returning to America. The Weirs were undoubtedly influenced in their teaching by the unique position between America and Europe that they held in their own painting careers, and by the curious mix of old and new sources they were exposed to during their travels abroad.
The turn of the 19th century marked the beginning of the establishment of formal, institutionalized art training in America. Previously, most art instruction was in drawing and was undertaken only for utilitarian purposes, mainly architectural design. Americans who desired formal training in painting or sculpture were forced to travel abroad to Europe to study. In 1805, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts was founded by influential American artist Charles Wilson Peale (1741-1827), with a curriculum based on copying classical works and drawing from life, but very few such institutions existed this early in the century. In the 1830s, ‘40s and ‘50s, art education steadily grew and developed, but it was not until after the Civil War, when Americans were searching for a renewed sense of identity after such widespread devastation, that institutions dedicated to art education fully took root in this country.
Robert Walter Weir is an example of an artist who suffered the effects of the unstable beginnings of art education in America, and this probably contributed to his strong commitment to his forty-two-year career as Professor of Drawing at West Point. Robert studied briefly at the Academy of Design in New York City when he was a young man, but had no opportunity for formal instruction in painting until he traveled to Italy, where he studied with Pietro Benvenuti (1769-1844) at the Academy of Florence. Robert’s trip abroad was funded by wealthy American benefactors, a rare opportunity for an artist at that time. While in Italy, Robert spent many hours copying Old Master paintings and works of sculpture, and both his personal work and his teaching reflected this. However, his teaching also reflected a strong sense of patriotism for America and his love of the Hudson River Valley, where he resided and where his children were born. While at West Point, Robert trained many well-known and successful military officers, such as Winfield Scott (1786-1866) and Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885). He also briefly taught the American artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), and traces of this West Point training can be seen in a few of Whistler’s major works.
When Robert’s son, John Ferguson Weir, was appointed Director of the new School of Fine Arts at Yale University, the newly constructed building intended to house the department stood empty. By the end of his forty-four years as Director and Professor, however, the building was full of hard-working art students and exhibitions of notable works of art, and had been enlarged to accommodate this expansion. The School of Fine Arts at Yale was the first academic art program on an American college campus, and as its first Director, John played a large part in its foundation. Also by being the first, Yale, with John’s help, shaped all future art education programs at American universities. Initially the school offered art classes to students in other disciplines, but quickly it became a course of study in its own right. Importantly, when it opened in 1869, the School of Fine Arts was the only department at the University that admitted women. In fact, for many years, women formed the majority of the students studying art at Yale.
While establishing the foundations of the Yale School of Fine Arts, John enlisted the help of his brother, Julian Alden Weir, who at the time was studying at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. John wrote Julian asking for information about how the school was run and how classes were taught. He also asked Julian to send him examples of life drawings, copies of Old Master paintings and studies of heads, done by Julian or his fellow students, that he could use in his classes at Yale. Thus, though John was working at an American university, the curriculum and organization of the school was based largely on European methods, which coincided with the multicultural nature of all three Weirs’ painting careers. When Julian returned to America after living in Paris for four years, he carried on the family legacy and took a teaching position at the Women’s Art School of the Cooper Union, in New York. He, like his brother, participated in the education of women artists at a time when they had few opportunities for formal study in this country. Julian’s teaching was perhaps the most forward-looking among his family, as he embraced both old and new sources, extolling the importance of Old Master paintings, but also promoting the radical style of the Impressionists.
At the end of his life, Robert must have been astounded by the tremendous changes that had occurred in American art education during his lifetime. He was able to recall a time when he could not even buy the most basic painting supplies in New York, but by the end of his life there were institutions being established all across the country devoted to training and educating young American artists in all fields. His dedication to teaching was shared by his two artist sons, John and Julian, who both became art instructors themselves. The three men carried the unique blend of American and European sources that they acquired through extensive international travel into their teaching, simultaneously promoting the importance of Old Master painting and classical sculpture, while always remaining firmly rooted in America.
Do you know of any other well-known artists that also had prominent careers as educators? In such cases, is one role more important than the other? Do you think there are advantages to artists also becoming educators?