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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Great Aunts in the Archives

Three women in a tree, ca. 1895 / unidentified photographer
 John Frederick Peto and Peto family papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

As a reference archivist at the Archives of American Art, I’m well acquainted with the wide variety of projects in art history and related disciplines that our holdings can inform. Every now and then, though, we hear from a different kind of researcher—one for whom the papers of an artist or his or her family carry personal meaning. Family historians—or genealogists—are usually well versed in using a variety of government and other official records to fill out their family trees, but the experience of using manuscript collections, such as those at Archives of American Art, can be new and, hopefully, rewarding. A researcher may know of an artist in the family (somehow it’s often a great aunt), or have a work of art by the relative, and a search for more information leads to the Archives of American Art.

Most of our collections of artists’ papers include at least basic biographical information from the artist, but there are many that also have more detailed material of interest to genealogists, including family trees in the John Henry Bradley Storrs papers, the Winslow Homer family Bible, and other family records, such as genealogies in the Jervis McEntee papers. And, sometimes you find literal family trees, or families in trees. In this case, John Peto’s aunts.

Our oral history collections are another great source of information on artists’ families as many begin with questions about the artist or subject’s parents and upbringing. The interview with Kathleen Curry, the wife of artist John Stewart Curry, includes a wonderful description of her parents’ impromptu courtship and marriage.

I’m always happy to assist researchers in our reading room, but there is a special place in my heart for those who visit to explore letters written by their ancestors, view baby pictures of their grandparents, and round out the history of their families through first–hand accounts of births, marriages, deaths, travels, and careers.

--Marisa Bourgoin is the Richard Manoogian Chief of Reference Services at the Archives of American Art.

This post was originally published on the Archives of American Art Blog.

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