The American Art-Union

I’m reading Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (The History of New York City) at the moment, and there is a bit of American art history that was new to me.

The Panic of 1837 had disrupted Manhattan’s patronage system. Cole, Sully, and Asher Durand found that merchants laughed wanly at the notion of buying paintings with their businesses facing bankruptcy. Spurred by hard times, artists fashioned new and more collective ways of supporting their work.

In 1838 portraitist and engraver James Herring established the Apollo Gallery, where painters could exhibit and share in the proceeds of a twenty-five-cent admission fee. When this foundered, Herring decided to reach out to a far broader audience. In 1839, drawing on a model developed in several European cities, he created the Apollo Association, a noncommercial joint stock company. Subscribers contributed five dollars each to a fund, which then purchased works from artists. These were exhibited to the public free of charge and, at year’s end, distributed by lottery to subscribers. Association members also received engraved reproductions of some of the artworks, as well as the group’s Bulletin, the first magazine devoted exclusively to American art. In 1844 the enterprise, now going strong, was renamed the American Art-Union (AAU).

The AAU was run by managers whom Herring drew at first from the pool of gentleman art enthusiasts—among them Philip Hone, rentier James W. Beekman, and editors Henry Raymond and William Cullen Bryant. Some were attracted by old republican ideals of stewardship and civic patronage; others hoped art might exert what the Rev. Henry Bellows called “exalting, purifying, calming influences” on the increasingly agitated masses. Young America rallied to the AAU, seeing in it a democratizing project akin to their own. Duyckinck, Mathews, Putnam, and O’Sullivan, delighted to make art available to the many, also hoped that artists freed from dependence on Eurofixated patrons might create an American art.

By the late 1840s the American Art-Union was the nation’s primary market for U.S. paintings other than portraits. Each year roughly nineteen thousand subscribers purchased an average of four hundred artworks, benefiting painters, sculptors, and the engravers and die casters who prepared prints for reproduction. The AAU’s gallery, one paper reported, had “grown to be a kind of municipal Institution, visited by the whole people.” The managers had established a luxurious setting on bustling Broadway, replete with ottomans and gas lights, that stayed open at night when working people could come. The gallery drew from “every section of the social system,” the press noted, “from the millionaire of 5th Avenue, to the B’hoy of 3d.” Half a million people visited in 1848, the organization claimed, a number roughly equal to the city’s entire population.

Here is a page with some of the engravings produced by the AAU.

2013-05-22 | 0 comments | in art

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