First Academies: Benjamin West and the Founding of the Royal Academy of Arts and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

Exhibition Info
Historic Landmark Building
Curated by
David R. Brigham, President and CEO
Investigating the role of Benjamin West in the founding of arts academies in England and the United States.

On the occasion of the 250th anniversary of the founding of the Royal Academy of Arts (RA) in London, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) is pleased to recognize the role that Benjamin West (1738—1820) played in founding each of these first sustained academies in England and the United States. Born outside of Philadelphia, West traveled to Europe at age twenty-one to study painting and, rather than return home, he was lured by immediate patronage and recognition to remain in England where he would become one of the founders in 1768 of the RA, its second president, and court painter to George III. While West never returned to America, he educated three generations of American artists in his London studio, including Charles Willson Peale, Gilbert Stuart, Thomas Sully, and Rembrandt Peale.

In 1805, when PAFA was founded, West was selected as the first Honorary Academician. By lending his name to the first sustained art academy in North America, then RA President West contributed to PAFA’s nascent reputation and importance. West accepted the honor and wrote, “It is my wish that your Academy should be so indowed [sic] in all points which are necessary to instruct, not only the mind of the student in what is excellent in art—but that it should equally instruct the eye and the judgement [sic] of the public to know, and properly appreciate Excellence when it is produced….”

This exhibition explores West’s important role in the establishment of the RA and PAFA through more than sixty paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures, manuscripts, and books. In addition to the founding stories of the RA and PAFA, this exhibition recognizes the other artist-founders of PAFA, West’s role as the teacher of eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century American artists, and the development of monumental history paintings such as Christ Rejected and Death on the Pale Horse.

Community Education


Points of View Speaker Series: What Good is an Academy?
Thursday, March 1st, 2018 6:00 pm (Lecture)