Archives Of American Art

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Collecting atmosphere, on the face of it, would seem to be like capturing a bright or stormy spring day and trying to keep it in storage. But that is what the Archives, by collecting all sorts of ephemera, does its best to do. No piece of paper that has to do with an artist or his work, however trivial it may seem, is allowed to escape if the Archives can lay its hands on it. Who is to say that it is trivial? It might well turn out to be the key to an important meeting between two artists that affected the careers of each. It might be like a cook’s recipe for creating an especially interesting stuffing—for example, a few notes about what pigments an artist used to create an uncommon flesh tone. (Thomas Sully put such recipes in his account book, a complete record of all the hundreds of portraits he painted over a very long career, with the prices he charged for them, an invaluable document now on microfilm in the Archives.) It might be an auction catalogue with a few notes of prices scribbled in the margin by someone who was there. (The Archives has virtually all the catalogues of art auction sales in America from 1785 to 1962, some thirteen thousand items microfilmed from museums, historical societies, and public and private libraries, many of them with prices.) It might be a letter from a proud parent about his newborn son, such as: “The boy is a promising one, and has already turned the household upside down. He is somewhat passionate—perhaps having been born in Italy—and is now scolding away most tempestuously because the nurse has thought it proper to give him his bath prior to allowing him to take his midday lunch.” The passionate boy was John Singer Sargent, whose father, when John was fifteen, wrote to a friend that ”… the boy who is very fond of drawing … seems more desirous of an artist’s life as a profession than of any other vocation and we intend to let him follow his bent.” A collection of more than a hundred letters from Sargent’s father, uncommonly tolerant of the profession of artist for a man of his social standing at that time, was given to the Archives by Winthrop Sargent of Haverford, Pennsylvania, whose grandfather was the painter’s uncle.

When Richardson began collecting material for the Archives (he had assumed the job of its director along with his museum duties), he devised an ambitious pilot project to test his theories. His first concern at that time was with records of past, not present, artists. “With a little money,” as he recalls it, “from friends in Detroit” he decided to see what a crash program of microfilming all of the holdings concerned with American art and artists in a single city would produce. He chose Philadelphia, the art capital of America in the late 1700’s and early iSoo’s, and in the course of a little more than a year the holdings of sixteen libraries and art institutions were put on microfilm.

Out of the files of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts came, for example, about thirty thousand items —correspondence, minutes of meetings, registers, ledger books, scrapbooks, and so on—that no one had looked at for years. There were the records of the Society of Artists of the United States, one of the very first attempts to give status to American painters. Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the principal architect of the Capitol in Washington, gave the Society’s first annual address in 1811, lambasting Roman architecture and praising the Greeks and exhorting his fellow practitioners of the arts to persuade their skeptical and prudish compatriots of their worth. The earliest letter in the Academy files was addressed to Benjamin West, the expatriate American who became president of the Royal Academy in London; it was written in 1760, the year he left for Europe. There were also the records of the Columbian Society of Artists that Charles Willson Peale had founded and almost broke his heart over. (He wrote in dismay to his good friend Thomas Jefferson, “I endeavored for some time to keep it alive as a tender, beautiful plant.”) The American Philosophical Society had stashed away, among other things, some five thousand items dealing with the Peales —a family that almost surely produced more able artists than any family in our history. The riches of Philadelphia were luxurious indeed.