America’s Oldest Continuing Artist Organization
On November 20, 1860, six “Bohemian” students from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, George F. Bensell and his brother, Edmund B. Bensell, Edward J. McIlhenny, Henry C. Bispham, John L. Gihon, and Robert Wylie met at 125 South 11th Street to form a “sketching club.” They sought illustration and design opportunities not available at the Academy. Within months, other talented artists were added to the membership, including Stephen J. Ferris, a celebrated etcher and Thomas Moran, the great landscape artist.
The Sketch Club responded to the educational needs of the arts community in the early 1870’s when the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts was awaiting completion of its new building and was without instructional facilities. Under the auspices of the Club, life drawing classes were conducted with Thomas Eakins as instructor. Lectures on anatomy were also delivered. When the Academy opened its new building in 1876, Eakins, an honorary member of the Club, volunteered to take over its life classes, undoubtedly utilizing his teaching experiences gained at the Sketch Club. By 1894 the Sketch Club had 400 active members, including many instructors at the Academy. Thomas P. Anshutz, who succeeded Eakins at the Academy, was President of the Club from 1910 until his untimely death in 1912. When World War I forced the world famous illustrator and etcher Joseph Pennell to leave Europe, he returned to Philadelphia and served as President of the Club in 1921.
As the years passed, the roll call of distinguished artists, past and present, continued to grow. Today this list includes names as widely known as illustrators A.B. Frost, N.C. Wyeth, Howard Chandler Christy, Henry Pitz, and Lyle Justis; cartoonists Hugh Hutton and Peter Boyle; painters Walter Baum, Edward Redfield, Hugh Breckenridge, Fred Wagner, Carl Weber, and Daniel Garber; etchers Benton Spruance, Stephen Parrish, and Robert Shaw; watercolorists Frank English, John Dull, Ranulph Bye, Domenic DiStefano, and Vincent Ceglia; and sculptors Charles Grafly, R. Tait McKenzie, Howard Roberts, and Ronald Spicer.
Almost from its start, the Sketch Club has had a history of successful exhibitions, beginning with its first Small Oils Show, a competition which has been held every year since 1865. Small Oils medalists themselves constitute a minor overview of who’s who in Philadelphia painting.The list includes many women, such as Paulette van Roekens, Alice Kent Stoddard, Dorothy van Loan, Jean Watson, Rita Wolpe Barnett, and Betty Bowes, as well as such distinguished men as John Folinsbee and Franklin Watkins.Since that first show, the Club’s exhibitions have grown to embrace all the visual arts, including prints, sculpture, and photography.
The present clubhouse, converted from three separate buildings built between 1822 and 1828, faces cobblestoned Camac Street. Its main areas are a large, skylighted gallery which stretches across the entire top floor, and meeting and activity rooms at street level, complete with manteled fireplaces.The upper walls of the library hold 44 portraits of early members painted by Thomas Anshutz while he was Dean of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.The library opens onto a terraced garden and fish pond. At the lower level is a rathskeller, etching room, and kitchen. The rathskeller features a carved wooden mantel dating from the nineteenth century. Scattered throughout the club, in fact, are wooden ship models, stained glass windows, pottery, antique iron work, and art objects made or donated over the last 100 years or more. Members, who now include both men and women, soon adopt one room or other of the club as their favorite spot to talk shop or relax, but the gallery is the focal point for all exhibitions, lectures, and studio workshops.