150 years of art: Beaux Arts, Bauhaus, and beyond

A brief history of the School of Art.

Mark Alden Branch ’86 is the executive editor of the Yale Alumni Magazine.

In 1887, an undergrad declared in the Yale Record that Yale’s art school existed to provide “light occupation to a large number of young ladies residing in New Haven and the vicinity.” The Record is a humor magazine, but the characterization was not entirely a joke. Although Yale’s was the first professional art school in a US university, and although its curriculum was modeled on that of the École des Beaux Arts in Paris, nothing could override the certainty of the time that women had no real place at Yale. Inevitably, the first Yale school to admit women wasn’t taken seriously.

This academic year, Yale is celebrating both the 150th anniversary of the opening of its art school and the 150th anniversary of those first women students. The Yale School of Art is now a powerhouse in fine arts education. It’s consistently number one in US News and World Report’s ranking of MFA programs. Its alums are conspicuously well represented in major galleries, museums, and showcases like the Whitney Biennial. In fact, a University of Chicago economist demonstrated in a 2005 paper that investing in the work of the school’s best students is a good strategy for beating the art market. He told the New York Times that he had looked at other art schools, but none came close.

The 150-year road to such international status has been driven not only by changing attitudes toward women, but also by Yale’s own changing attitudes about art and by a major revolution in the art world.


To the donors who established the school—known then as the School of Fine Arts—women weren’t an afterthought. Augustus Street ’12 and his wife, Caroline Leffingwell Street, had had seven daughters. Their donations came with the requirement that the school be “open to both sexes, for such as propose to follow art as a profession.” In 1864, the Streets’ donations launched the construction of Street Hall and provided a partial endowment for the future art school. After Augustus Street died in 1866, Caroline Street continued to take an active role in the school until her death in 1877. Among other things, she helped to choose the school’s first dean, John Ferguson Weir.

Weir was a 28-year-old painter of budding renown when he was hired as dean in 1869. Classes began on October 15 of that year, with three students enrolled: sisters Alice and Susan Silliman (daughters of chemistry professor Benjamin Silliman Jr. ’37) and Julian B. Smith. Weir’s Beaux Arts curriculum progressed from basic drawing to drawing from casts and live models to painting and sculpture; there were also lecture courses in art theory and history. This traditional program continued with relatively little change for 80 years.

The administration’s commitment in the early decades was lukewarm at best. The school was expected to be self-supporting; it was highly dependent on tuition revenue, and Weir had to mount special exhibits and charge admission just to get the money to equip the classrooms. Although undergraduates in the Sheffield Scientific School could learn drawing skills at the art school, students at Yale College—then considered Yale’s most prestigious school—were not even allowed to take art classes until around the turn of the century. The majority of students for many years were women.

With a few exceptions, the artists Yale trained in those first decades did not make lasting reputations. Perhaps the best known is Frederic Remington ’00BFA, who was one of 7 men in his class of 30 when he entered the school in 1878; he dropped out after a year and a half. (Like many early students, he received his BFA years after leaving Yale, based on his work as a professional artist.) The school first started offering a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1891, and it was a woman—Josephine Miles Lewis ’91BFA—who earned the first. She was the second woman to receive a Yale degree of any kind, following Alice Rufie Jordan Blake, who got her law degree in 1886.

In 1916, the art school added a program in architecture, and in 1924 one in drama. Each would eventually be spun off into distinct Yale schools. The broad commitment to arts education they represent—along with the School of Music, founded separately in 1894—still distinguishes Yale from other elite schools. It’s a difference that redounds to the benefit of the college as well, through undergraduate course offerings and other opportunities, as the admissions office never fails to emphasize.

Weir retired in 1913. The school continued its traditional approach to art education, and soon it began receiving worldwide recognition. From the 1920s until World War II, Yale students won the prestigious Prix de Rome so often that wits began to call it the “Prix de Yale.” A 1940 Life magazine article reported that “tradition and technique are the watchwords at Yale” but also that “in the last five years, Yale students have opened their eyes to the present . . . commenting articulately on such themes as war and poverty and disaster and tyranny.”

But this awakening was nothing compared with the changes that would take place at the school after World War II, when so much of American culture underwent a revolution. At Yale, that revolution arrived in the person of Josef Albers, the German artist who came to America in 1933 after the closing of the Bauhaus, legendary incubator of modern art and design. Art school dean Charles Sawyer invited Albers to come help him reorganize the curriculum. They subsumed the painting and sculpture programs within a department of design—chaired by Albers—which also included a new program in graphic design led by Alvin Eisenman.

Albers explained his philosophy to Yale president A. Whitney Griswold ’29 in a 1951 report: “Art, I believe, cannot be taught directly. Our teaching is, therefore, . . . a training in observation and articulation. . . . The development of technical skills must be subordinated to the development of a flexible imagination.” The old Beaux Arts methods were abandoned as Yale caught up with an art world that had embraced abstract and nonrepresentational art. Albers himself taught a foundational course in color that explored the same ground as his Homage to the Square paintings.

For most of its existence, the school had been open to artists who did not have a college degree; by the 1950s, two years of college or art school were required for admission. In 1959, the school became strictly a graduate school, offering a Master of Fine Arts degree.

Albers’s Bauhaus-inspired pedagogy dominated the school in the 1950s, but in the next decade Yale became more closely associated with the freer, more personal expressionism coming out of New York. 

It was in those years that the school began to graduate artists who remain household names, including Chuck Close ’64MFA, Richard Serra ’64MFA, Martin Puryear ’71MFA, Jennifer Bartlett ’65MFA, and Eva Hesse ’59BFA, among others.

The 1960s also brought the school into a new home: Paul Rudolph’s complex and controversial Art and Architecture building. The new building accommodated all the art and architecture students, but in spaces the artists never found adequate. Sculptors were in a low-ceilinged sub-basement, and painters found their quarters too small for the expansive canvases then in vogue. Art and Architecture became separate schools in 1972, but they shared their eponymous building until the School of Art got its own housing: Holcombe T. Green Jr. Hall, on Chapel Street, where painters, graphic designers, and photographers work; sculpture studios are in a nearby building off Edgewood Avenue.

Today, the school’s reputation as a leader is still formidable. Nine alumni of the school, and one former undergraduate art major, were represented at this year’s Whitney Biennial. Sculptor Martin Puryear was selected to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale.

Many alumni say that what makes their education at Yale’s School of Art so valuable is the cohort of fellow artists with whom they study. In his 1991 dean’s report, Andrew Forge, director of studies in painting, wrote: “The MFA program only lasts two years. It is a very short episode in a painter’s education, which is a long-drawn, slow, and often unpredictable business. One of the things that compensates for one’s regrets at seeing students come and go so quickly is the way that generations of graduates stay in contact with each other after they have left, sharing an ethos, an aspiration, and in some special sense, a language.”  

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