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 loincloth 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 clothes 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 wealthy 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 institution’s founder.

*America’s Old Masters, Dover 1967

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