There was a time in the United States, during the second half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, when art students regularly drew the nude human figure by drawing plaster casts of ancient sculptures. A live model was a great rarity, and it was considered so shocking in 1886 when painter Thomas Eakins undraped a male model for his students (some of whom were female) that he was fired from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The Metropolitan Museum of Art had a large collection of plaster casts (the museum’s 1908 “Catalogue of the Collection of Casts” listed 2,607 pieces) from which students could draw and which visitors could admire.

Eventually, the Metropolitan and other museums around the country acquired actual marble and bronze sculptures to exhibit in their galleries—those plaster casts were put into storage, where they may be today unless...


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