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Archives Of American Art

April 2024
18min read

What was Whistler’s mother really thinking about? You might find out in the

In 1954 Lawrence A. Fleischman, a young, determined collector of American art in Detroit, took a puzzle to Edgar P. Richardson, the director of the Detroit Institute of Arts. The problem was a painting that Fleischman had bought for $15,000, the work of an obscure Philadelphian named Thomas Anshutz. Who was Anshutz? If anybody knew, surely it would be Richardson, who was then engaged in writing his splendid book Painting in America: The Story of 450 Years (1956). Richardson could say only that no book about Anshutz existed, that “probably somewhere in Philadelphia there was information” about him, but he did not know where. It was known that he was a pupil and friend of the great Thomas Eakins, that he had been a teacher at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and that was about all.

The Anshutz, Steelworkers—Noontime , that caused Richardson and Fleischman to bemoan the scarcity of information about American artists in general has since had an impressive history. This painting, a rather small one by an artist almost entirely unknown eighteen years ago, sold at auction in 19712 for $250,000, an auction record at that time for a nineteenth-century American work. Far more important than that, however, the obscurity of its maker was one of the chief provocations for the creation of the Archives of American Art, surely one of the most extraordinary scholarly resources in the country, albeit one of the youngest.

Richardson and Fleischman put their heads together. Would it be possible, they wondered, to search out primary material about American art, microfilm it, and bring it together in one centrally located place? They demonstrated that it was indeed possible, for now the Archives, which became a division of the Smithsonian Institution in 1970, has well over five million frames of microfilmed documents, a collection of more than severity thousand photographs of American artists and their works, and twelve hundred taped interviews with artists, museum directors, dealers, collectors, and critics. The Archives’ holdings on microfilm are now available in five cities in which there are branch offices; their purpose is not just to disseminate information but to discover new material for the collections. The principal collecting office is in New York because that is the center of America’s art world. The processing of the material goes on in the Archives office in Washington in the same building—a splendid Greek revival structure, once the home of the Patent Office—that also houses the National Collection of Fine Arts and the National Portrait Gallery. The Boston office is tucked away in the elegant Bulfinch mansion on Mt. Vernon Street that is occupied by the Colonial Society. San Franciscans provided quarters for the Archives in the tower of the de Young Museum, and the Detroit Institute of Arts continues to be the Archives’ home in the Middle West. More than that, as we shall see, Detroit is still the most imaginative and vital source of the Archives’ support.

Four or five years ago I had occasion to talk about the Archives with Thomas P. Moving, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was at a time when plans, now matured, were germinating for a vast expansion of the American Wing and galleries and storage for the American collections of the museum, and there was some notion that the Archives might become part of that complex. I mentioned, among other holdings of the Archives, the fact that it had the complete records of the Macbeth Gallery, which had been one of the most important dealers in American art for sixty-two years (from 1892 to 1954): its correspondence files, its ledgers, photographs, scrapbooks, and catalogues, some 180,000 items in all. Hoving could hardly believe it. “Think what it will be worth to scholars two hundred years from now!” he said.

The Archives is primarily concerned not with objects of art (indeed it conscientiously avoids owning any, because it does not want to compete with museums or private collectors) but with people. It is a vast storehouse—vast in documentation, not in size—of the social history of the American plastic arts—of the people who make them, buy them, commission them, sell them, talk and write about them, display and study and preserve them, and of the people who support the artists spiritually as well as materially and some who pretend to but don’t. It would be fashionable today to say that the Archives is concerned with the “total environment” of the plastic arts in America. I prefer to call it the atmosphere of the arts, because it deals in intangibles, in moods and speculations, as well as in facts and places and cupboards, sometimes empty, sometimes full to bursting. Atmosphere is even more ephemeral than environment, more difficult to capture and more difficult to retain.

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.

Not only did Richardson’s pilot project prove the validity of collecting other institutions’ collections in a manner that made them readily available to scholars, but it also made it clear that the process was a protection to their valuables. “The idea … was welcomed,” Richardson has said, “because the Archives is not in competition with, or attempting to replace, existing collections or libraries, but enlarging their usefulness. No organization in this country was bringing together such documents on a national scale. … The microfilm copy protected rare and fragile papers from repeated handling.” The Archives also helped to create a change in mood among some institutions that had in the past jealously clutched their papers to their bosoms and would let no one consult them unless they came to their chambers. They had felt that somehow their authority was diminished, their treasures demeaned, if scholars were not required to come in person to consult them, and that microfilmed copies were a threat to the institutional dignity to which exclusivity contributed. The New-York Historical Society, once very chary of permitting its holdings to be microfilmed by the Archives, is now cooperating fully and enthusiastically. Among its holdings are the complete records of the American Art Union, the first large-scale art promotion in this country, which did a roaring trade in paintings and engravings in the 184o’s and 5o’s and involved most of the major artists of the period. Just last year the Archives completed microfilming the papers of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (also called Fenway Court) in Boston, including correspondence on the formation of that extraordinary collection in which Bernard Berenson played such an important part. The papers had been carefully withheld from inspection for years.

But mining the rich veins of other institutions’ resources is by no means the only, or even the primary, concern of the Archives. It is as fearful that the present may escape as that the past may not be recoverable. In each of the five branches of the Archives the work of discovery and. retrieval goes on, and it is the persuasiveness of the retrievers and (if the metaphor may be excused) their doggedness that keeps a constant flow of papers coming into the Archives.

Take, for example, albeit a rather spectacular one, the case of Rockwell Kent. Kent was on a list of artists whose papers Butler Coleman, the regional director of the New York office of the Archives, was determined to acquire. Kent, a figure of great prominence as a painter and illustrator in the 1920's and as an explorer and writer before that, had made himself suspect and unpopular in the i93o’s and 4o’s as a political activist far to the left of what was considered tolerable by the vast majority of his contemporaries. His work, moreover, had generally gone out of fashion, and the generation of rising artists and critics of the 5o’s thought him old hat. He had sent the manuscripts of several of his books to the Soviet Union rather than give them to an American institution, and with a fondness for remote places (his early books were about the Arctic wilderness) he removed himself, physically if not intellectually, from the centers of art and letters.

A series of communications from Coleman to Kent, asking for his papers for the Archives, had brought friendly though evasive replies, but Coleman and Paul Cummings, the Archives’ most skillful interviewer for its oral history program, made a date to see him in Au Sable Forks in upstate New York in February, 1969. While Cummings interviewed Kent with a tape recorder in his studio Coleman sat in the kitchen with Mrs. Kent, successfully, as it turned out, persuading her to encourage her husband to turn over his papers to the Archives. After Coleman’s and Cummings’ visit the Kents put the artist’s papers into cartons, and then in the early spring Kent wrote to Coleman inviting him to Au Sable Forks to discuss the details of transferring the papers to the Archives. Just two days after he mailed the letter, his isolated house was consumed by fire; his valuable library, including first editions of William Blake, was destroyed. The Kent papers, however, easily portable in the cartons, were carried outside by neighbors in time to escape the fire.

“There is at this time little for us to be glad about,” Kent wrote to Coleman on May first, “but it is a matter of deep relief to us that our ‘archives’ are to be shipped to Detroit, and that our decision to do this was reached long before disaster struck us. … We wish the whole house with all its now irreplaceable contents had been sent to the Archives.”

The story would be smaller and prove less about the value and nature of the Archives if the salvage had not been so rich in letters from Kent’s contemporaries—artists, literary figures, dealers, and movers and shakers from the days when Alfred Stieglitz was running his 291 Gallery and Arthur B. Davies and Walt K’fchn were organizing the notorious Armory Show of 1913. As Garnett McCoy, the chief archivist, said, “The collection as a whole is a major historical quarry which will be worked for years to come by art historians, biographers, and American Studies scholars.” In all it consists of about fifty thousand items.

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.”

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.

To a considerable extent the Archives has been a hand-to-mouth operation from the start. Fortunately the hand has been extremely ingenious, and the mouth has not been too intemperate in its appetite. For the first decade of its existence it was almost entirely financed by Detroiters who were proud that their city should have been the home of this national cultural resource. They raised money by holding auctions of everything from furniture out of Grosse Pointe attics, jewelry from the safes of Detroit matrons, and pictures off the walls of suburban houses to, perhaps most surprising of all, machine tools that were no longer needed by big factories and were coveted by small operators. The first such machinery auction netted the Archives ninety thousand dollars. A New York trustee invented the “airlift,” the first use of what has now become a commonplace method of fund raising for cultural institutions. The airlifts have taken members of the Archives (its members now number sixteen hundred) to the Soviet Union (as far as Samarkand), to India, to Greece, to Turkey, where in each case arrangements were made in advance for the travellers to have access to private collections, to parties given for them by governments, to museums opened especially for them at hours when the public was not admitted. It was a great gimmick while it was exclusively the Archives’ doing; it no longer contributes the fat sum it did—some fifty or sixty thousand dollars a year to the kitty. Now somewhat less ambitious trips are taking members to collections on this continent.

As the Archives grew in usefulness as well as in size it felt the need to be affiliated with a larger organization, and the Smithsonian Institution was eager to cooperate with both space and financing. The Archives, however, had no intention of losing its identity in the maw ofthat vast organization, and it maintains its own board of directors and raises its share of the funds for keeping its archival vacuum cleaner going.

What the vacuuming picks up is obviously interesting only for immediate or potential usefulness. The number of scholars, editors, critics, and curators who consult the Archives is double what it was three years ago, but the figures are meaningless. It is what ultimately comes out of these researches that matters. It can be said without reservation, I believe, that no book of any consequence on the arts of America is published these days that does not acknowledge the help of the Archives. It has, in other words, become an essential and basic tool of the man or woman behind the typewriter trying to throw light into the often dark recesses of our art history.

Recently, in a newsletter that the Archives sends to its members (in addition to its quarterly journal, which discusses its findings and holdings in a scholarly but by no means pedantic way), there was a list of a few new books based on the Archives’ materials. There are a dozen of them—including monographs on Stuart Davis, David Smith, Moholy-Nagy, Ben Shahn, and Roy Lichtenstein. There is a volume on Six Black Masters of American Art by Romare Bearden and Harry Henderson; there are catalogues of exhibitions of American art at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the museum in Dallas, one for the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and so on.

No one, I think, would presume to say that the Archives has been responsible for the extraordinary revival of interest in the arts of America and especially those of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth. No one would say that it was the Archives that made the price of the Anshutz with which this article started jump from fifteen thousand dollars to a quarter of a million dollars in twenty years. But no one should presume to underestimate its influence, either. A decade ago there was scarcely a college or university that gave a course in the American arts; now there are dozens. The first scholarly conferences on the American arts were not held by museums or universities; they were set up in the early i goo’s by the Archives. The attitude toward American art is very different today. Witness the flood of publications about American artists, the Hudson River School paintings brought up from the cellars of museums and proudly hung in newly decorated galleries, the vast exhibition of nineteenth-century art with which the Metropolitan Museum celebrated its centennial, the number of dealers and auction houses that gloat over a sketch by Bierstadt of an imaginary mountain or a drawing of a schoolboy by Eastman Johnson.

It is not these objects that the Archives worries about; that is a museum’s business. It is why these objects came into being, why their makers were as they were, thought as they thought, saw as they saw, lived as they lived that concerns the Archives. It is the air they breathed, the atmosphere that sustained them, caught on millions of pieces of paper there waiting to be recycled, one might say, into the lives of men.

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