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Monday, May 10, 2010

The Art Inventories

Do you know about the National Art Inventories? The Inventories comprise over 400,000 records of works of art in public and private collections worldwide and is one of the research databases searchable in the Collections Search Center.

Let me tell you a little about how the Inventories got started.

Beginning in 1971, the National Collection of Fine Arts (later renamed the Smithsonian American Art Museum) sought the partnership of institutions, organizations and individuals throughout the country in a program to record all paintings made by Americans from the nation’s earliest history through the cultural close of the nineteenth century: a Bicentennial Inventory of American Paintings Executed before 1914.

In the five years between 1971 and 1976, the year it became available to the public, information on 150,000 paintings had been collected. Innovative for its time, this computerized research tool allowed these paintings to be indexed by artist, owner, and subject. During those years photographs of these artworks were also collected, comprising the accompanying photographic study file which researchers could view in the Washington, D.C. office.

Through the years, technology advanced. The original data bank evolved into a searchable tool accessible to all via the internet. The number of recorded paintings now numbers over 331,000 and still counting. The Inventory grew to include American sculpture, from colonial to contemporary times. Folks around the country surveyed over 32,000 outdoor sculptures as part of Save Outdoor Sculpture! And currently, the Inventory images files are being digitized for all to view online.

Building the Inventory has been an adventure in partnership. Museums, scholars, owners of paintings and volunteers who organized search and record projects in their communities contributed the knowledge that is the Inventory’s substance. Local surveys were organized (by groups such as the American Association of University Women and the Colonial Dames of America, local historical societies and universities) turning up thousands of previously unrecorded paintings. Information was also gathered from exhibition and collection catalogs, periodicals and auction catalogs.

An Inventory is a simple, non-selective accounting of objects. From its inception, the Inventory strove to be as comprehensive as possible. No work was judged for its aesthetic merit. No work was excluded because of its lack of historical significance or visual appeal. Instead, the Inventory sought to assemble documentation of all art works, leaving the mysteries of identification and definition of cultural patterns to the scholars and researchers.

In 1976 the museum published the Directory to the Bicentennial Inventory of American Paintings Executed before 1914 and thus introduced the new national inventory to the American public. Over the years since, the scope, name, and means of access may have changed, but the intent of the project remains the same: to provide researchers, scholars, teachers, collectors, and art enthusiasts with a comprehensive tool for locating American artwork around the world.

The following quote is from a 1975
Antiques Trader and I only wish the writer could have known that 35 years later, in 2010, the Inventory project would not only still exist, but would be a vital and important resource in the field of art history.

“Imagine, if you will, a computer which stores that name and pertinent data involving every American painting in existence before 1914. If you are a researcher, writer, collector, or historian and are seeking information on works by a certain artist, or even specialized categories such as illustrations of fishermen, blacksmiths, cowboys, you may write to Washington and receive this material. That is, in 1976, if this fantastic projects continues as scheduled...” (Antique Trader, 1975)

Pictured, top: John Singer Sargent, An Interior in Venice (1898), in the collection of the Royal Academy of Arts, London, England. (IAP 81890089)

Pictured, bottom: John Quincy Adams Ward, Sheridan (1916), at the New York State Capitol, Albany, New York (IAS 77006223)

--Nicole Semenchuk, Research & Scholars Center, American Art Museum


  1. I appreciate your post, thanks for sharing the post, i would like to hear more about this in future

  2. Records and inventory are crucial in the art world. Keep up the great work!