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Vassar Encyclopedia

An online work in progress under the direction of Vassar’s College Historian

School of Art & Music

Vassar has a long tradition of supporting the enriching powers of the fine arts and music in the lives of their students. Matthew Vassar and President John Raymond took an interesting and somewhat complicated approach to the creation of music and art programs that rivaled those of their peer institutions. The traditional place of art and music in the cultivation of an educated woman posed a challenge. Often a woman would learn to draw or play the piano as an accomplishment, neither as a passion nor as a profession. Thus, women artists and musicians were looked down upon as not being serious about their skills.

However, if taught properly and with enough focus, music and art could greatly enrich the lives of the students. Thus the college established two extra-collegiate schools of Art and Music as artistic environment in which students could fully immerse themselves in the technique and history of their arts. Drawing and piano were no longer fringe accomplishments; they were serious study. Raymond’s daughter, Harriet Lloyd, who edited his letters, wrote: “So strong was his belief in the mental discipline attained through the severe studies that he even urged its important relation to the fine arts, and its value in preparing the way for their cultivation.” Raymond was especially concerned with the success of the “Art Schools” as serious components of an academic institution, fearing that they suffered “from their disadvantageous competition with the claims of the college course.” Harriet notes that her father felt he “could only entrust the administration of those departments to those in full sympathy with his own high idea.”

The First Annual Catalogue of the Officers and Students of Vassar Female College Poughkeepsie NY 1865–1866 lists the schools as “Extra-Collegiate Departments,” underscoring Raymond’s wish to locate the study of art and music within a college setting. The “School of Voice and Instrumental Music,” headed by Edward Wiebé, offered private and group lessons ”according to the European Conservatory system, of late so successfully introduced in the leading cities of our own country.” The piano classes reflected a gradual progression towards full mastery of the instruments, portioning the classes into seven different levels. Beginning with Richardson’s Methods, students moved on to more advanced works by Czerny, Mendelssohn’s Lieder ohne Worte, Bach’s Well Tempered Clavichord, and finally concertos and symphonies. Students were given two lessons a week and an hour for practice a day, although they were allowed additional practice, “to any reasonable extent.” The course also included the “rudiments of musical theory” in Vocal Classes, in which anyone in the college could participate. For advanced students, solo-singing, organ, thorough-bass and composition were taught only in private lessons.

Complementing this program was the School of Design, which strove to “cover the whole ground of Elementary Drawing and Painting.” The aim of the School of Art was described thus:

The object aimed at in the Department is not to enable the students to carry home ‘pretty pictures’, copied from prints without knowledge, and consequently without state, but to educate her mind in the essential principles of art, while training her eyes and hand to its successful practice.

Again, the emphasis is on an art program that eschewed the stereotypes of the day and sought, under the direction of Henry Van Ingen, to produce women artists through a gradual progression from life study to full fledged oil painting. One also notes that the women were not taught the “more masculine” art of sculpture.

By 1877-78, the schools were lumped together in the Catalogue as “Art Schools.” Still “Extra-Collegiate,” their students were listed separately in the front of each catalogue and they received a special certificate for their accomplishments. The schools produced great results. Outside reviewers praised Professor Frederic Louis Ritter, who took over the program in its third year, for the virtuosity and dedication of his students. Ritter himself noted that his students “though inadequately prepared when they came to us, set to work.”

With the succession of James Monroe Taylor to the presidency in 1886 and the death of Ritter in 1891, the usefulness of the Schools of Art and Music came into question. In a “Notice issued from the President’s Office in October, 1891 to the Board of Trustees,” Taylor presented a contrary view to Raymond’s vision: “All who have watched carefully the recent development of the College, must have felt that the relation to it of our schools of Painting and Music involves a source of weakness, and even the possibility of an influence antagonistic to our academic development.” The “Notice” was part of Taylor’s larger project to raise Vassar’s standards to that of its peers. Harvard, Yale, Pennsylvania and “most of the colleges for women” were performing similar re-organizations of their schools, and Taylor, wishing that “no student should enter college who is below the full requirement for the Freshman year,” warned also that the hours needed for musical and artistic practice “might be a menace to higher standards.”

As “is done in Harvard University,” the orchestra, music and art classes would be open to only juniors and seniors. As an incentive for students to take advantage of courses that would not count towards graduation, the extra fees were abolished. Taylor thus felt he placed “music on a more dignified basis than now, and would give it, as a study, a place worthy of it in a liberal education.”

Many students seemed to agree with these changes. The Miscellany of 1892 noted that “The abolition of the Art and Music Schools raises the standard of the college and offers greater advantages in the regular course”. However, in his 1895 report to the Trustees, Van Ingen lamented the limited number of students who were taking Studio Art Classes, foreshadowing a curricular shift toward the teaching of Art History.

Related Articles


  1. Raymond, John. Life and Letters of John Howard Raymond. 588-9.
  2. Subject File 11.1 Annual Report 1877-78.

MD, 2004; CJ, 2006