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Archives Of American Art
What was Whistler’s mother really thinking about? You might find out in the
April 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 3
That is not to say, however, that there are not reluctant artists. A desire for absolute privacy restrains some from cooperating with the Archives. In the case of David Smith, he quite obviously did not want to be bothered. When the Archives wrote him asking permission to quote him in a publication, the letter was returned unopened. A few weeks later he was killed in a car accident. His papers, from which two books have already been written, came to the Archives because of the interest of his executors. In other cases widows are evidently eager to edit their husbands’ papers and hence their reputations. Sometimes it is their husbands’ sexual excursions that widows wish to sweep under the rug; sometimes it is their political involvements that they would like to have forgotten.
The Archives is not, however, an exclusive repository of the records of the great. It is often the lights from the side of the stage that throw the principal actors into three dimensions —letters, for instance, from Whistler’s mother rather than Whistler himself. About ten years ago the Archives came into possession of a series of letters from and to Charles Frederick Briggs, a minor critic and literary figure of the i84o’s. He was a close friend of the poet-diplomat James Russell Lowell, knew well the artist-profligate William Page and the poet-dipsomaniac Edgar Allan Poe. There were thirty-six letters to Lowell, in one of which he wrote, “Poe’s mother-in-law told me that he was quite tipsy the day that you called upon him and that he acted very strangely. ... He was to have delivered a poem before the societies of New York University, a few weeks hence but drunkenness prevented him.” He also made comments on Longfellow, Bryant, and the journalist Nathaniel P. Willis. Garnett McCoy reports that he “happened to mention” these letters to a literary historian at Michigan State University. “He was absolutely staggered,” McCoy told me. “He said he’d been looking for these very letters for years. He knew they existed, but he didn’t know where. He was then able to finish both his dissertation and an article he was writing.”
Page himself is interesting—a brilliant, thrice-married spendthrift who lived in Venice and wanted to paint like Titian. Henry Stevens, the brother of Page’s third wife, more interested in respectability than in art, kept trying to get Page out of debt. “High art and naked female figures are all very well in their place,” he wrote, “but the first and only thing for you to do now is go into the still higher art of getting out and keeping out of debt.” In other words, he should paint portraits that people would pay good money for. On the other hand, there is also a letter in the Page file from Elizabeth Barrett Browning about Page’s portrait of her beloved Robert. “I must always fail in any adequate expression of my grateful feeling to you for your princely gift,” she wrote. “You have done most for me next to God who gave me my husband.”
But this is like dipping into Lake Superior with a teaspoon or like testing the menu of Maxim’s in Paris with a pair of tweezers. No tiny sampling can give a sense-of the full flavor of the Archives or more than suggest the variety of its riches, the infinite potential of its holdings for the inquisitive, or the reservoir of astonishment and illumination for future historians.
In its earliest days, a mere two decades ago, the Archives considered casting its net far more widely than it later decided was feasible. My first encounter with the Archives was a meeting around 1960 with William E. Woolfenden, now the director of the organization and its prime mover, to discuss the possible scope of the Archives. We talked about including the theatre, industrial design, architecture, the dance, films—everything, that is, that has to do with the visual arts. It was not long before this comprehensive idea was narrowed to matters concerned just with painting and sculpture, and the decorative and graphic arts. The American Institute of Architects had planned to create a comprehensive archive of American architecture (it never has); obviously the Museum of Modern Art was doing a job for the films that no one could hope to match; and in any case the Archives was not and never had been interested in duplicating the functions of other organizations. One of the Archives’ earliest projects was to assemble as complete a record as possible of the WPA Art Project, which had saved so many artists from starvation during the Depression of the igSo’s and had covered so many post offices, libraries, and other official walls with murals ranging from very nearly firstrate to absolutely dreadful. Although a massive amount of material was collected and more than four hundred interviews were conducted, the project was never completed, for lack of funds. Some day, Woolfenden is convinced, it will be, and much will be learned from it.