- Historic Sites
Archives Of American Art
What was Whistler’s mother really thinking about? You might find out in the
April 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 3
It was in a quite different manner that the Archives came into possession of the papers of the Macbeth Gallery. They dribbled in a bit at a time over a period of nine years starting in K)53 —cartons filled with correspondence between the gallery and museums, collectors, critics, and literally hundreds of artists. There were scrapbooks and clippings and more than ten thousand photographs. In 1962 they stopped coming. Mr. Robert G. McIntyre, the last owner of the gallery, moved to the little village of Dorset, Vermont, and with him went many cartons whose contents he apparently hoped to examine. In 1965 hf died, and his will did not provide tor the disposition of his files. After a long and seemingly fruitless correspondence between the Archives and his executors (other institutions were also after the papers) a real-estate agexit called in September, 1966, saying, in effect, “If you want the papers, hop to it. The house has been sold, and they’ve got to be out in a week.” McCoy left Detroit for Dorset at once.
He found the garage attic filled, he recalls, with “dust-covered cartons, stuffed drawers, great mounds of exhibition and auction catalogues, stacks of photograph albums in a state of wild confusion.” His eye fell on “one inconspicuous bundle” that, he said, turned out to include twelve Winslow Homer letters, “several of them illustrated with sketches.” An almost equally large treasure was in the cellar of the house; much of it had been “attacked by a creeping, slimy mold.”
How to get them out? Obviously McCoy had not come with a load of empty cartons, but fortunately a farmer down the road (what would history do without its “farmers down the road"?) had given up his apple business and had a barn full of apple crates that he was glad to sell cheap. The documents arrived at the Archives packed as apples.
A less scholarly institution than the Archives might be tempted to suggest that it was led to the papers of Elihu Vedder by the painter’s ghost. In 1961 the Archives maintained an office in Rome to search for the records of the many American painters and sculptors who worked there in the nineteenth century. (On the whole the search was not very rewarding.) Lawrence Fleischman, then the Archives president, invited the scholar Dr. Regina Soria to lunch with him and his wife at the Gaffe Greco near the Spanish Steps, once the favorite hangout of American artists, and asked her if she knew about any Vedder papers. Fleischman had already bought a few things by that eccentric mystic, who was a practical joker at heart. Dr. Soria pointed a finger at the ceiling and said, “The ghost of Vedder must be with us. His papers are upstairs.”
And so, indeed, they turned out to be. Vedder had been survived by a daughter (she disliked him so much that she wouldn’t go to his funeral) who left Vedder’s paintings, drawings, and correspondence to a friend who had taken care of her when she was ill and aging. The friend lived upstairs. The upshot of this chance encounter was that Kleischman and a friend, Harold Love, an Archives trustee, bought the whole lot for, as nearly as Fleischman remembers, about seventy thousand dollars and gave the papers to the Archives—some four thousand documents.
In the early days of the Archives it was far more difficult to get the papers of contemporary or recent artists than it is today. Persistence and success have bred success and made persuasion easier. The very fact that the Archives is now part of the Smithionian has given it a stature in the eyes of artists and their heirs that makes it a better magnet. Some reluctance to commit papers to a new institution in far-off Detroit has given way to willingness to deposit them in the nation’s capital in a quasi-governmental institution with all the prestige that goes with a national resource.
But ordinarily the Archives still has to seek rather than be sought. "1 know this sounds ghoulish,” Coleman said, “but we watch the obituaries very closely, and after a suitable interval we write to an artist’s widow or children explaining what the Archives is all about and asking that they consider giving us the papers. If we don’t hear, we follow it up and try to set up an interview.”
Sometimes the reaction of the artist’s heirs is “Do you really want this stuff?” Sometimes a letter written by the Archives while an artist is still alive and active will turn up in a desk drawer after his death, and his executors are delighted to know that somebody is interested in his correspondence and records. The Archives keeps lists of artists, not just the most successful ones but “anybody who has achieved something in the visual arts,” and those who are highest on the list are for obvious reasons the older ones. “We go after those who were born in 1890 today. Those who were born in 1900 can wait till tomorrow.” Gradually it has become well known in the world of the visual arts that there is a certain kudos in being asked by the Archives for one’s papers and that being asked to be interviewed exudes an odor of status. Several years ago I talked with Harold Rosenberg, the art critic for The New Yorker , about the Archives interviews. “Oh, I know about them,” he said, half seriously. “Half the artists in Easthampton these days are trying to make up stories about themselves that they think will look good in the Archives records.”