America’s First Drawing School: A Scrapbook Set to Inspire Students

By Olivia Armandroff, WPAMC Class of 2020

What is essential in an education? Public elementary education in this country often includes an art curriculum. As a kid, I always enjoyed art classes as opportunities to be creative and original. But as a Winterthur student, I’ve undertaken drawing assignments with a very different end goal: exercising my close looking skills in the collection.

I recently took a look at students’ work produced in America’s first drawing school, now in the Downs Collection in Winterthur Library. While I flipped through a scrapbook of watercolors, pen and ink, and graphite drawings from 1804 to 1819 that was compiled by a later principal at the school, Revered Edward H. Reichel, the question of what inspired these student artists was on my mind.

The scrapbook is from the Moravian boarding school of Nazareth Hall, a Pennsylvania institution that has its origins in a joint project undertaken by Moravian settlers of Georgia and the evangelist minister George Whitefield in 1740. After several unsuccessful starts, Nazareth Hall was officially founded in 1785 and although it had previously served only the Moravian sect, at this point, the school opened itself to students of all denominations. Its curriculum was also reimagined as a classical education that would provide a foundation for commerce and business professions. For that reason, “reading, writing, arithmetic; the English, German, Latin, French, and Greek languages; History, Geography, Mathematics, Music and Drawing” were taught.

It appears that in their drawing course, students were instructed to copy from a set of prints. This is exemplified by several drawings in the scrapbook based upon Johann D. Preissler’s anatomical drawing manual, De Durch Theorie erfundene Practice, which include red chalk studies of disembodied eyes and lips as well as curling toes on the feet seen in the drawing below. Such exercises in reproduction have long been intended to refine the skill of the artist’s hand. Copies of botanical drawings and architectural plans suggest students were practicing careful execution of precise details. The approach shows how important the training of a careful eye is in preparation for a career in business.

Red chalk drawing of two feet.

Samuel Reincke’s representation of a pair of feet, 1804. Photograph by the author.

 

Hands and feet in various positions.

Johann D. Preissler’s manual, De Durch Theorie erfundene Practice, page 27. Photograph courtesy of the Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg.

 

Green and brown painting of the botanical specimen rubus.

Peter Wolle, Rubus, 1806. Photograph by the author.

 

In the scrapbook, the images are often titled, which has allowed them to be attributed to their sources. Some are derived from popularly circulated images of the period, such as the Death of General Wolfe, originally painted by Benjamin West. When creating his own painting based on West’s work, David Myers, a Nazareth Hall student, avoided the scene’s more complicated landscape backdrop by filling it with smoke and excluded some of the figures. While it seems he was working from a colored print, as he has accurately captured the tones of most of the clothing, notably the bright green uniform of the figure on the far left, several striking anomalies, including a white flag rather than the British standard, show Myers took liberties with his version. Myers transformed the second figure from the right, in West’s painting a man with cropped hair and a green cloak, into one with dark hair and a black gown. Both appear to be religious figures, with their hands clasped in prayer, but Myers’s alterations beg the question of whether he has surreptitiously included a Moravian in West’s iconic scene.

Battle scene showing the death of a general with figures surrounding him.

David Myers’s recreation of Benjamin West’s The Death of General Wolfe. Photograph by the author.

 

Battle scene showing the death of a general with figures surrounding him.

Benjamin West, The Death of General Wolfe, 1770. Photograph courtesy of the National Gallery, Canada.

 

These creative interpretations are especially evident when multiple students represented the same print, such as a view of Kunkham Abbey in Yorkshire taken from the European Magazine and London Review. While Henry Earl’s 1816 version uses wash sparingly, creating the impression of a sunlit scene with high contrast, an effect exaggerated by the distinctly outlined clouds in the sky, one year later, Samuel R. Sevier used more tonal shading, endowing the scene with a different effect.

Battle scene showing soldier and religious figure.

Detail of religious figure on the right.

Drawing of country path leading to a medieval gate with a valley backdrop.

Henry Earl, Kunkham Abbey, Yorkshire, 1816. Photograph by the author.

 

Drawing of country path leading to a medieval gate with a valley backdrop.

Samuel R. Sevier, Kunkham Abbey, Yorkshire, 1817. Photograph by the author.

The collection of drawings from Nazareth Hall is derived from an impressive collection of prints—varied in their subject, style, and purpose. Images capturing German landscapes and ancient warriors allowed students to imagine other times and places. Similarly, an education in a range of languages meant the students were invested in international subjects. In 1786, graduates began a tradition of performing plays in the newly constructed pleasure gardens, first presenting Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.” Considering the school’s location in rural Pennsylvania, the work of these early American students demonstrates their worldly engagement.

The richness of the drawing collection may also reflect the multiplicity of the student body. From its early days, students of many races and origins came together to board, including John Konkaput, a Housatonic Indian from Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and several students who originally hailed from the West Indies, where many Moravian missions were located. Among the drawings illustrated in this blog post are ones by students from New Jersey, St. Thomas, South Carolina, Pittsburgh, and Tennessee. While they may have all been engaged in the same exercise, copying prints, the students at Nazareth Hall brought their past experiences and various future aspirations to bear in their artistic creations.



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