By Catherine Petersen and Elizabeth Bradshaw
The highest priority for any library is access to the materials. Access to archives, however, is closely guarded. Although we had no archivist on board during the Museum’s first two years, we did have a substantial collection of over 1,800 artists’ letters and manuscripts that needed to be preserved. So, during the summer of 2012 we welcomed three very competent interns: project lead Greg Brown, Sarah Beasley, and Jenna Lindley, along with amazing volunteer Lona Mullins to organize the majority of artists’ letters and manuscripts in our collection.
Greg wrote in his synopsis of the project: “The authors included in this series constitute a unique group in the history of American art. Some of the manuscript authors include highly acclaimed American artists such as John Singleton Copley, Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Cole, and Winslow Homer. While there are a number of manuscripts written by such historical figures, there are a great number authored by artists, sculptors, and various other individuals whose contributions are less well-known yet of equal historical interest. The artists’ letters and manuscripts provide insight into the lives of artists, their efforts at self-promotion and their successes, or lack thereof, at marketing themselves profitably. Each manuscript is often times a candid admission, written in confidence, regarding one’s true thoughts or feelings. Crystal Bridges artists’ letters and manuscripts series is considered an appropriate supplement to the Museum’s collection of artwork.”
They began by unpacking and inventorying the manuscripts. Then they processed and labeled the documents—including transcribing them (an often daunting task considering the beautiful yet illegible 18th & 19th-century handwriting). These documents make up the entirety of what is labelled the Crystal Bridges Artists’ Letters and Manuscripts Series (CB MAN Series). Finding aids for the collection were created according to archival description, and the manuscripts were carefully stored in flat files, file folders, folios, and larger bank boxes. Lona digitized the letters and manuscripts, and now anyone, anywhere can locate the finding aids from our library website. The CB MAN Series sets a replicable precedent for all future archival work at Crystal Bridges.
A few of the artists’ letters are quite humorous, such as:A postcard from Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966) detailing the recent outbreak of influenza. Parrish reveals a funnier side of his personality when he casually writes about his ownership of a small dog, “but at its lowest moments we have to console us the thought that we do not have to take out a little wooly dog for its toilet. Why do they have capital punishment when they could sentence a man to air a peevish, costive, long haired rat three times a day?”
Or a typed letter from Stanford White (1853-1906) to Frederick MacMonnies stating, “I suppose you have heard the rumpus about St. Gaudens little nude on the medal for the Columbian Show, and how it also has spread itself to your design for the eagle.” Speaks of “the complete and absolute idiocy of the Naval Board.”
Editor’s Note: White is referencing the fact that August St. Gaudens’s original design for the award medal for the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 was rejected because it included the figure of a nude boy on the reverse. This side of the medal was eventually redesigned by the Treasury’s own engraver, Charles Barber. The eagles White refers to are those that MacMonnies was sculpting for a set of pillars to be installed in the Grand Army Plaza in Prospect Park in Brooklyn. –LD
To view archival materials in the library please contact [email protected] for an appointment.