The Fleisher Years Chapter 1: Samuel S. Fleisher and the Origins of the Graphic Sketch Club (1871-1898)
Over the next twelve months, in honor of Fleisher Art Memorial’s 125th anniversary, we’ll be taking a deep dive into FAM’s archives and history. Starting with the birth of founder Samuel S. Fleisher in 1871, each installation of The Fleisher Years will provide an opportunity to explore and celebrate subsequent chapters and milestones leading to the present.
Born in 1871, Samuel Stewart Fleisher was the third son of Simon B. Fleisher, who built the Fleisher Yarn Company with his brother Moyer Fleisher (sons of German Jewish immigrants). The family company would become a major manufacturer of hand-knitting yarns and worsted fabrics made from high-quality wool, the products of which were manufactured in Philadelphia mills and marketed nationally.
Samuel S. Fleisher grew up among a family of successful and reform-minded Philadelphians. With the financial means to implement good works on behalf of the city’s immigrants and working poor, Samuel and his siblings founded and supported numerous institutions, philanthropies, clubs and other causes, some serving new Jewish immigrant communities, others for the general benefit of the city, and some specifically for employees of their company (including a champion soccer club).
After graduating from the Wharton School of Business in 1892, Samuel was soon appointed vice-president of the family business. He believed that acknowledging the inherent worth of every individual was of the utmost importance to his work and position. Acknowledging the integral role that the workers played in the company, he was also mindful of carrying on mutually beneficial engagements with his employees.
Samuel’s particular passion was art and its capacity to uplift the lives of all. Concerned for the welfare of his company’s workers, their children, and others who lived in the neighborhood, he began offering free children’s art classes hosted at the Jewish Union building near 4th and Bainbridge. Starting with drawing and painting classes for immigrant youth, his vision quickly grew more ambitious. The endeavor soon came to be known as the Graphic Sketch Club, an inviting and collaborative artistic space which catered to adults and children of all races and nationalities.
Classes at the club were offered in a laid back, non-competitive style to encourage students to enjoy the process of art-making as a joyful end in itself. Students were only asked to pay for materials, which Fleisher acquired at the lowest possible prices, and often passed along without charge to those who could not afford them otherwise.
“[Art] knows no country, race, or religion and often drops its choicest blessings where least expected.” – Samuel S. Fleisher
Image Credit: “Founder of the Graphic Sketch Club teaches visitors about the statue Venus and Adonis by Nicholas Romano of the Sketch Club,” Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, 1927. Courtesy of the Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA.