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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery’s Hidden Treasures: American Artists’ Self-Portraits

Blogs across the Smithsonian will give an inside look at the Institution’s archival collections and practices during a month long blogathon in celebration of October’s American Archives Month. See additional posts from our other participating blogs, as well as related events and resources, on the Smithsonian’s Archives Month website.

In 1966, the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery founded the Catalog of American Portraits (CAP), a national portrait archives of historically notable subjects and artists from the colonial period to current times.  The public is welcome to access the online portrait search program from the museum website of over 100,000 records.  The CAP program can be reviewed at the following National Portrait Gallery website link

Self-Portrait, by John Singleton Copley, 1780-1784, oil on canvas,
Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, NPG.77.22

Artists’ self-portraits are one of the hidden treasures of the Catalog of American Portraits.  Our museum research center lists public collections which include American artists’ self-portraits, such as the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Art Institute of Chicago; Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Academy of Design, New York City; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia; Royal Academy of Arts, London; American Academy in Rome; and the Uffizi Gallery, Florence.  Artists have been encouraged to create self-portraits for display at academy and museum collections.  The Royal Academy of Arts in London holds a remarkable 1793 oil painting of Benjamin West, who served as the Academy president from 1792 until his death in 1820.  He portrays himself formally seated in the president’s chair with symbols of his artistic and intellectual interests.  Benjamin West drew a circle of American artists to England as his students, including John Singleton Copley.  Circa 1780-1784, Copley depicted himself in a reflective mood within a rondel bust painting.  His gaze is averted away from the viewer suggesting that he might have used two mirrors for this unusual pose.

Self-Portrait, by Sarah Miriam Peale, circa 1818, oil on canvas, 
Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, NPG.84.178

In 1822, Charles Willson Peale presented himself in The Artist in His Museum, drawing a curtain to reveal an exhibition hall and his multi-faceted achievements as an artist, naturalist, educator, and museum founder.  His niece Sarah Miriam Peale is believed to be the first female artist in America to earn a living from her profession.  In 1824, she was also one of the first women elected to membership in the Pennsylvania Academy.    In this circa 1818 oil painting, Sarah Miriam Peale gazes engagingly at the viewer with a slight smile that is characteristic of many of her portraits.  Her uncle Charles Willson Peale was impressed with the life-like quality of her self-portrait. 

The artist and inventor Samuel Finley Breese Morse became a founder in 1826 of the National Academy of Design in New York City, and his self-portraits are held at the National Academy and the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC.  In his circa 1809-1810 miniature, Morse depicts himself in the process of painting, holding his paint brush and palette.  Morse is well known for his creation of the 1838 model for the modern telegraph.  However, he is considered one of America’s leading artists of the romantic school.

George Peter Alexander Healy was a  celebrated portraitist  and the first American artist honored by the Uffizi Gallery in Florence to present his 1875 oil portrait to the international self-portrait collection.  In this painting, Healy employs a frontal pose, confidently looking directly at the viewer.  The Uffizi Gallery features more than twenty art works by Americans, including Cecilia Beaux, John Singer Sargent, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol.   A leading portraitist and educator, Cecilia Beaux reveals a remarkable artistic evolution from the youthful 1894 self-portrait at the National Academy of Design to her somber 1925 composition at the Uffizi Gallery.   

Self-Portrait, by Lee Simonson, circa 1912, oil on canvas, Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, NPG.77.239

Self-Portrait with Squash, by Stanton MacDonald-Wright, 1951, oil on wood,
Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, NPG.81.119

In the 20th century, artists experimented with self-portraiture as a vehicle for their interests and explorations.  Before World War I, painters Lee Simonson and Stanton MacDonald-Wright formed a friendship and were both influenced by their acquaintance with the progressive, contemporary Parisian art circles.  They shared an interest in bright, rich colors and forms in transition.  Both admired such Post-Impressionist artists as Paul Gauguin and Paul Cezanne.   In circa 1912 Self-Portrait, Lee Simonson depicts himself in a colorful composition with a still-life and dynamic, patterned interior setting.  Simonson used his early experiences as a painter to become a major American theater and exhibition designer.  His friend Stanton MacDonald-Wright explored color and abstract forms.  In the 1951 oil Self-Portrait with Squash, his face is barely visible in the cubistic, floating composition.  MacDonald-Wright is highly regarded for his contribution to the development of color theory and the abstract art movement.  During his career, Chuck Close has redefined the nature of self-portraiture in his neo-realistic photographic style.  He painted a monumental self-portrait in 1996 for the American Academy in Rome. 

Contemporary portraiture is continuously expanding this sense of experimentation in terms of concept, technique, and medium.  Exciting and thought-provoking self-portraits are an integral part of the National Portrait Gallery's Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition.  American artists are encouraged to enter in this portrait competition which takes place every three years with the fifty finalists’ art works exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery.  

-Patricia H. Svoboda, Research Coordinator
 Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Catalog of American Portraits


Carolyn Kinder Carr and Ellen G. Miles; foreword by Marc Pachter; with an essay by Margaret C.S. Christman, A Brush with History: Paintings from the National Portrait Gallery.  Washington, DC: Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, 2000.
Ann C. Van Devanter and Alfred V. Frankenstein et al., American Self-Portraits, 1670-1973. Washington DC: International Exhibitions Foundation, exhibition held at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and the Indianapolis Museum of Art, 1974.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Morris Louis: Looking Through the Eyes of Love

I recently spent a little time on a foray back into processing an archival collection (usually I am fully immersed in the Archives of American Art's oral histories).  Rather serendipitously  as soon as I dug into working on an addition to the Morris Louis and Morris Louis Estate papers, more additions to the collection came raining from the sky! Every week, it seemed, a courier would drop off another box.  In one of those downpours came a box of photographs and slides. These images will help to form a more complete story of Morris Louis – and his marriage to, and relationship with, Marcella Brenner (née Bernstein).

I think it's safe to assume that most archivists will immerse themselves in the collection (or collections) they are currently working on—reading, listening to, looking at everything they can to "get inside" that person or organization. I listened to a fascinating lecture, which is available on the Hirshhorn's website, given by Diane Upright on the opening day of the exhibition  Morris Louis Now: An American Master Revisted  at the Hirshhorn September 21, 2007. Upright's lecture give me a lot of insight into Morris Louis, his career, and his paintings. But what has stayed with me the most from the lecture are the bits about the relationships between Morris and Marcella and Morris and his painting. I asked myself, how does our archival collection begin to reflect those relationships?

Morris Louis and Morris Louis Estate papers, 
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Marcella supported Morris and his art. She worked while he stayed in their 2 bedroom apartment and painted. Yes, he taught painting classes in Baltimore and privately, too. But he was not the primary breadwinner. Upright notes he drove Marcella  to work every day, then went home and painted. By the time she returned home in the evening he was done. No one saw Morris working. No one saw his studio. Not even Marcella.  There are no known photos of Morris working or of his studio—this documentation just doesn't exist. Furthermore, Morris' work was so large, and the space he was working in was so small, it is doubtful he saw an entire painting he was working on until it was stretched and hung for a gallery.

Let's jump forward. After Morris's death in 1962, Marcella asked the Bernstein family for full control of the estate and the family granted her this right. (Years later, after Morris had gained some notoriety, they would regret this decision and a lengthy court case would follow.)
unidentified photographer. 
Morris Louis and Morris Louis Estate papers, 
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

unidentified photographer. 
Morris Louis and Morris Louis Estate papers, 
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

The images to the right were taken during the estate inventory in 1966 at the Santini Brothers warehouse where Louis' paintings were stored.  These images are the closest we come to seeing his work in a raw form. Here are the giant canvases in various forms of storage – rolled and unrolled, unstretched, and on the floor with men handling them. A very different scene than what we're used to—perfectly hung works on white walls in a gallery. (Don't get too close! No touching!)

We also get to see those people who were closest to Louis in life. Present is art critic Clement Greenberg, who gave many of the paintings titles at Morris' request. One of the other men in the room looks like Morris' brother whom he grew up with in Baltimore. And here we see Marcella supporting Morris even in death. She made Morris Louis--with help from Andre Emmerich, Clement Greenberg, and others. But without Marcella "in the picture" I doubt he would have risen to such high acclaim and importance in the art world.

Jennifer Snyder works with oral history interviews at the Archives American Art.

Blogs across the Smithsonian will give an inside look at the Institution’s archival collections and practices during a month long blogathon in celebration of October’s American Archives Month. See additional posts from our other participating blogs, as well as related events and resources, on the Smithsonian’s Archives Month website.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

What Happens When an Original Archival Collection is Hidden, but its Copy Is Not?

Blogs across the Smithsonian will give an inside look at the Institution’s archival collections and practices during a month long blogathon in celebration of October’s American Archives Month. See additional posts from our other participating blogs, as well as related events and resources, on the Smithsonian’s Archives Month website.

Dealing with archival materials in libraries can be complicated for any number of reasons: identifying the creators and other contributors; devising an adequate catalog description; and properly preserving and housing the materials.

Portrait of Sir J.F.W. Herschel,
based on a painting by
H.W. Pickersgill, R.A.,
and engraved by J. Cook
One of the knottiest issues facing archivists and librarians is what to do when you have a copy of an archival collection, but you don’t know where the original collection is.

It’s not uncommon for researchers or faculty members to turn over hoards of notes, photocopies, and miscellaneous documents to libraries and archives upon their retirement, or after the completion of a major effort like writing a book. With luck, information about the original source of the materials will be provided by the donor.  But sometimes life is messy, and the library or archive is left holding on to things that may be of interest to other researchers, but questions of rights (especially for reproducing part or all of these kinds of collections) raise a red flag. Ideally, the librarian or archivist would be able to refer interested researchers to the repository with the original documents. But that information isn’t always known.

Earlier this year, I faced this confusing situation when I was asked by Lilla Vekerdy, the Head of Special Collections, to recatalog a volume of photocopied typescript and handwritten pages which had been sitting in the Smithsonian Libraries’ remote storage annex for years. During a periodic review of the items in the annex, Mike Hardy, one of our sharp-eyed Technicians, came across this volume and brought it to Vekerdy’s attention. The book contained documents referring to the mathematician and astronomer Sir J.F.W. Herschel (1792-1871), but little more was known about who had compiled the materials, and why, and how the volume wound up in the Libraries’ collections. As the Special Collections Cataloger, I was given the task of puzzling out the answers.

Originally, I suspected that the items which made up the volume might be located in the Dibner Library’s extensive collection of manuscripts on the history of science. Alas, no. So I looked for other clues. The volume itself contains two main sections, including an almost complete typescript biography of Herschel with a few handwritten annotations, and a group of supporting materials made up mainly of transcribed correspondence and various notes. In a few places, the initials “M.F.H.” appear, dated 1931 in one instance. The biographical section begins:

This chronicle is chiefly written for the many great-great grandchildren of Sir John Herschel. At the same time it will be read by his daughters who still take a lively interest in the matter … the object of this volume is to enable his descendants to form a mental picture of the conditions under which scientists pursued their aims.

Armed with the initials “M.F.H.” and the knowledge that whoever pulled together the original documents was probably a Herschel family member, I tried searching the internet to identify the compiler and/or the biography, which I assumed had already been published since the draft appeared to be so close to completion. When those efforts didn’t pan out, I turned to Twitter, knowing that some of my followers specialize in the history of science. I tweeted: "Herschel (astronomer) scholars: can you identify who 'M.F.H.' is, apparently cataloger of H. papers."

Sample of a heavily edited page
from the photocopied manuscript
of the Herschel draft biography
Rebekah Higgitt (a former Dibner Library Resident Scholar, now curator & historian of science at Royal Observatory Greenwich & National Maritime Museum and a blogger on history of science for The Guardian who tweets as @beckyfh), Thony Christie (who tweets as @rmathematicus and writes the Renaissance Mathematicus blog) and I tossed around a few ideas on Twitter: maybe "M.F.H." stood for "Miss Francisca Herschel," one of Sir J.F.W. Herschel's daughters, although that theory was a stretch, since those same initials appeared at the end of Francisca Herschel's obituary in the Feb. 1933 Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (v. 93, p. 228-229). Or, maybe the initials were for a lesser known child of Sir J.F.W. Herschel, whose amazing accomplishments include having been the father of twelve children. Higgitt suggested that I follow up with Dr. Emily Winterburn, a curator at the Museum of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine at the University of Leeds who had written her Ph.D. thesis on the Herschel family. With a quick email exchange, Winterburn solved that mystery: "M.F.H." was Mira F. Hardcastle, a granddaughter of Sir J.F.W. Herschel (the child of his daughter Maria Sophia and her husband Henry Hardcastle). Working outside of the limelight, Miss Hardcastle was the faithful Herschel family historian, carefully compiling letters, journals, timelines, anecdotes and other scraps of information to illuminate the life of her grandfather as one of Great Britain's foremost scientists of the nineteenth century.

Grateful to Dr. Winterburn for having solved this part of the mystery, I focused next on locating the stash of original documents that served as the source for the Dibner Library's photocopied volume. This part of the story, still unfolding, will be covered in a follow-up blog post next month, so stay tuned!

Herschel Letters, Manuscripts, etc., 1838-1932. fMSS 001803 B Dibner Library

--Diane Shaw, Special Collections Cataloger, Smithsonian Libraries

Saturday, October 27, 2012

As I was walking down the street one day...

As a visitor in NYC recently, briskly walking to keep pace with the throngs of commuters on Fifth Avenue, I came to an abrupt stop at number 597. A New York Landmarks Preservation Foundation plaque announcing the address as the former home of Charles Scribner’s Sons had caught my eye. 

photo by Karen Weiss

Stepping back to take in the full height of this impressive building designed one hundred years ago by Ernest Flagg (1857-1947), I tried to visualize the hustle and bustle of the publishing house, and to place the Archives of American Art’s Charles Scribner’s Sons Art Reference Department records in their true original order.  Looking past the Sephora sign (the building’s current tenant), I wondered which of the ten expansive floors had held these voluminous picture files nearly one hundred years ago? How were the hundreds of photographs, drawings and original illustrations used in its publications, today neatly processed in acid-free containers, originally stored and filed within those walls? 

N.C. Wyeth, ca. 1920
The Archives of American Art acquired the Charles Scribner’s Sons collection in 1957, just a few years after it began collecting primary source documents documenting the visual arts in America. Like many of the early accessions, the collection’s initial treatment emphasized description at an individual document level, resulting in the decision to physically remove photographs of notable artists and art related figures and incorporate them into a “Main Photo File” while paying less attention to describing the overall collection’s purpose and functional history.

I first encountered the photographic portraits in 2000 while leading a project to digitize that central file, which involved dismantling it and returning each photograph to its original collection as a prerequisite for scanning. I can recall my excitement as I saw the trove returning to the Scribner’s collection grow in number, revealing a fascinating mix of subjects.

Duchess of Cambridge, between 1884 and 1889
The collection contains photos of dozens of notable artists and authors affiliated with Scribner’s, among them Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912), Frederic Auguste Bartholdi (1834-1904), Royal Cortissoz (1869-1948), Donald Grant Mitchell (1822-1908) who wrote under the pseudonym “Ik Marvel,” Francis Hopkinson Smith (1838-1915), Ernest Piexotto (1869-1940), and N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945) to name a few. It also features photos of historical figures as diverse as the Duchess of Cambridge (no, not the current one but Princess Augusta of Hesse-Kassel who held HRH title from 1818-1889), music critic James Huneker (1857-1921), and Leon Trotsky (1879-1940). Each of these photographs are now cataloged individually in the Collection Search Center and also can be found on the Archives of American Art’s website.

In 2009, as part of a major grant funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art, the Scribner’s photographs were again digitized, but this time, the scanning encompassed the entire collection – all nine linear feet of the portrait, illustration and other files.  Instead of individually describing each item, the collection as a whole was first described in a finding aid prepared by an archivist.  Access is at the folder level, and users are given the opportunity to browse the collection box by box, folder by folder, and benefit by understanding the items in context with the full body of documentation. The Archives has digitized over 110 collections in this way, comprising over 1,000 linear feet.

N.C. Wyeth sketch for a book cover, ca. 1922

One would think that the individually described and digitized photographs, an online finding aid and full access to the Archives’ Scribner’s collection would be the end of the road for its description, but with my curiosity piqued by the random encounter with 597 Fifth Avenue, I turned to – what else – a Google search.  The increasing online availability of archival resources led me to discover that Princeton University Library’s Manuscript Division holds the entire 750 linear feet archives of the Charles Scribner’s Sons publishing firm, including the textual records for the Art Department. When notified about our nine linear foot portion, Princeton’s Reference Archivist told me that they had always wondered about the whereabouts of the original artwork.  Soon, both institutions’ finding aids will include reciprocal notes and links that will virtually reunite these holdings.  I also found Princeton’s extensively researched chronology of Scribner’s, listing every significant event in the company’s history between 1846 and 1996. One fact caught my eye and brought me back to 597 Fifth Avenue; Ernest Flagg designed not only this building, but also Scribner’s earlier building at 153 Fifth Avenue, and to top it all off, was the brother-in-law of Charles Scribner II. 

--Karen Weiss is the Information Resources Manager at the Archives of American Art.

Blogs across the Smithsonian will give an inside look at the Institution’s archival collections and practices during a month long blogathon in celebration of October’s American Archives Month. See additional posts from our other participating blogs, as well as related events and resources, on the Smithsonian’s Archives Month website.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Hiding in Plain Sight

This year for American Archives Month, the Smithsonian highlights Hidden Treasures in its collections. I recently had my own encounter with a hidden treasure in the Archives of American Gardens—in this case a group of mislabeled images that ended up highlighting an icon of American architecture.

Glass House, 1971, Molly Adams, photographer, Maida Babson Adams Collection
AAG’s Maida Babson Adams American Garden Collection  includes thousands of images taken by freelance garden photographer Molly Adams who documented hundreds of gardens in the mid-Atlantic region during the 1960s and 1970s.  Adams’ image collection was donated to AAG by her family in 2003.  Little information was included with the images beyond perhaps the client name and sometimes the city or town scrawled on the back of photographs or on yellowed glassine envelopes housing batches of photographic negatives.  Another challenge was the fact that strips of film negatives and contact sheets often contained more than one garden, though no indication was given where one job ended and the other began.  

Glassine sleeve with reference to 'greenhouse tour.'
While processing the collection, I came across a batch of negatives in a sleeve labeled “Greenhouse tour/Westchester/Feb[ruary] [19]71.”  As luck would have it, this was one of the very few projects in the Adams Collection accompanied by a ‘Rosetta Stone,’ in this case an itinerary for a “One Day Pilgrimage Greenhouse Study Tour” sponsored by the Horticultural Society of New York.While reviewing the images with the hopes of matching them up to site descriptions on the schedule, one in particular caught my eye because of the massive window walls it featured.  A few terms clicked into my computer’s search engine…and you guessed it, the image (and a few of its associates) show none other than The Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut designed by Philip Johnson.  Not in Westchester County and not on the schedule!  

Glass House, 1971, Molly Adams, photographer, Maida Babson Adams Collection

Glass House, 1971 Molly Adams, photographer, Maida Babson Adams Collection

A terrific find for AAG, but one that underscores how much archivists rely on accurate metadata (or data about data) to be able to identify what’s in their collections so that they in turn can generate finding aids and catalog records that help researchers locate the resources they need.  It’s a bit overwhelming to think of all the treasures that may be hidden in an archives.  Then again, even the most accurately identified and thoroughly described item in an archives is a hidden treasure at one point or another, just biding its time for the moment when a researcher uses it to solve a mystery, prove a point or tell a forgotten story.

Joyce Connolly
Museum Specialist
Archives of American Gardens
Smithsonian Gardens 

Blogs across the Smithsonian will give an inside look at the Institution’s archival collections and practices during a month long blogathon in celebration of October’s American Archives Month. See additional posts from our other participating blogs, as well as related events and resources, on the Smithsonian’s Archives Month website.