The Sketchbooks of William Emlen Cresson

This exhibition of Cresson’s sketchbooks and paintings highlights his artistic promise as both a painter of literary scenes and as a humorous caricature artist. Click here to turn the pages of Cresson's sketchbooks and zoom in on images of his satirical drawings of the Philadelphia art world. After browsing the digitized sketchbooks please come to PAFA to view the exhibition and look a little deeper at this Sketch Club talent.


The Academy has long owned this sketchbook of Cresson’s. It consists of 33 sheets, with about 60 pages covered with sketches. This early work is dated 1862, the year after his studies here, when Cresson was 19 or 20. While some of the sketchbook is filled with anatomy, drapery, and head studies, many scenes reference works of mythology or literature, such as Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and Robinson Crusoe. Some of these studies, enriched with watercolor embellishment, recall his teacher Peter Frederick Rothermel’s watercolors, and appear more like miniature paintings than sketches.


The subtitle of this album – “Sketches of Fact and Fancy, Drawn Upon the Spot and upon the Imagination” – hints at the satirical images inside, a recording of artist and patron relationships in Philadelphia in the 1860s. Each drawing, accompanied by a lengthy caption, depicts a witty exchange between artists and patron. For example, “A pupil that is all in his eye” Peter Paul Rembrandt Lemon Peel, visited by Mr. A.L. Shoddy, only thinly veils Cresson’s reference to Rembrandt Peale, who died at 83 in 1860, and had held an almost legendary status at PAFA for half a century. The scene shows Peale fainting upon being shown the work of Mr. Shoddy’s son, a tongue and cheek reference to wealthy members of Philadelphia society who sent their untalented youth for education by the long suffering Peale.