The American Art-Union (1839-1851) was a subscription-based organization founded in 1840, whose goal was to enlighten and educate an American public to a national art, while providing a support system for the viewing and sales of art “executed by (A)rtists in the United States or by American (A)rtists abroad.” The idea of an art union had been a popular one since the early 1800s in Europe. They first appeared in Switzerland, gaining great popularity in both Germany and the United Kingdom in the 1830s. It was the UK’s version — Art-Union of London (AUL) — that was used as a model for the American Art-Union (AAU).
For five dollars a year, the members of the AAU would receive a copy of the minutes from the annual meeting, free admission to the Gallery, at least one original engraving published by the Union from an original piece of art by a contemporary American artist, and in New York City, the members also received a ticket in a lottery to win an original piece of art from within the collection.
Within its short thirteen years, the American Art-Union would become the largest in America. It made a significant impact on the art literacy of Americans, developed a taste for an American kind of art which was largely nationalistic, and supported the custom of artists and museums. From 1839 until 1851, New York City’s population would not hit the 400,000 point, but it is estimated that over three million guests attended the Gallery. The organization grew exponentially from 814 subscriptions, in 1840, with art valued at $4,145 to 18,960 subscriptions, values in excess of $100,000.
Possible social causes
The timing for the American Art-Union could not have been better. The American public, providers and politics would conspire for a meteoric rise in the popularity of the AAU. The burgeoning interests of a growing, literate, middle class was keen to pursue scientific, artistic and leisure activities which they had been unable to pursue or afford in the past. A new generation of businessmen were desirous of surrounding themselves with all the appearances and habits of their more wealthy counterparts.
The numbers of newspapers and periodicals were growing dramatically and the desire for images with print was preferred. The global popularity of science and art, as well as an interest in “exotic people and places” could be accessed through lectures, subscriptions to special interest groups and such diverse venues as P.T. Barnum‘s, Brady’s Daguerrean Miniature Gallery and Peale’s Gallery of Fine Arts. The business of advertising was in its infancy and the companies could provide consumers with commodities at their own postal box within shrinking delivery schedules due in large to a growing rail system.
The U.S. Congress was promoting westward advancement, communication and Indian resettlement.
 Apollo Gallery
Businessman James Herring opened the Apollo Gallery in New York City in 1838, to provide a place for American artist’s to exhibit and sell their art. The Apollo Gallery was the first gallery open at night; from nine a.m. and “every fair evening until nine o’clock” with the use of gas lamps. It was at this time that he received an analysis of the second year experiment from “The Edinburgh Association for the Promotion of Fine Arts in Scotland”. Thus inspired, he encouraged a group of other prominent New York City businessmen to develop the concept using the Apollo Gallery as their venue for America’s first art union. Although the concept was very popular, it was not sufficient to remunerate Herring. However, he would stay active with the group, becoming the first Corresponding Secretary on the Committee of Management and the only artist.
CREATION, MORAL REASONS AND PATRIOTIC
A new venue and a new name–the American Art-Union–set itself to a double task within its Charter, dated May 7, 1840. The first was a moral task of developing the taste of the middling classes towards (what was in the AAU’s estimation) the best kind of American art and its themes. The second, was to provide a venue for the exhibition and sale of art from contemporary and emerging American artists within its “Perpetual Free Gallery” (free to members, nominal charge to non-members).
The AA-U’s management were among the wealthiest,(six of the ten most wealthy in the city), conservative and well connected men in New York City. They were mostly first, (at most second) generation wealth and had close ties in business, political and social endeavors. There were only five presidents in the thirteen years and of the 211 possible choices of individuals for office, the duties were performed by eighty-two. The following men were elected:
The Committee of Management in 1839
- John W. Francis, M.D., President
- Philip Hone, (banker, politician, etc.)
- J. Watson Webb (newspaper editor)
- John P. Ridner (mahogany merchant)
- John L. Morton (merchant?)
- Augustus Greele (paper merchant)
- James W. Gerard (lawyer, philannthropist)
- William L. Morris (lawyer)
- William Kemble (merchant)
- T. N. Campbell (broker)
- Aaron R. Thompson (merchant)
- George Bruce (typefounder)
- Duncan C. Pell (auctioneer)
- Eleazar Parmly (dentist)
- F. W. Edmonds (Cashier of the L. M. Bank), Treasurer
- Benjamin Nathan (broker), Recording Secretary
- James Herring (gallery proprietor), Corresponding Secretary
From a patriarchal position, the Committee deemed itself best able to choose both the artists, select the art work that would be chosen as part of the AA-U’s permanent collection and choose the pieces or pieces to be engraved and published. Further, as “merchant amateurs” they would be the best suited to manage and the Art-Union, “just like a good merchant”. Their goal, pointedly was “to establish a National School of Art,” one which was originally American—illustrative of American scenery and American manners”.
The Artists (in part): George Caleb Bingham Thomas Cole Jasper Francis Cropsey Francis D’Avignon Thomas Doney Asher Brown Durand Daniel Huntington John Frederick Kensett Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze William Sidney Mount James Smillie
Although there would be other art-unions in the US, “none would achieve the popularity or influence of the American Art-Union. The art-union concept fell out of favor however, it is curious, the number of reasons that have been attributed to the AAU’s demise. The lottery and other managerial weaknesses, competition and pride have all been blamed.
The lottery, although a creative and extremely popular incentive, was problematic by its nature, and was part of the AA-U’s demise. Members would not buy their subscriptions until the collection had art ‘worth winning,’ but the AA-U could not purchase the art without the funds from the subscriptions. It led to what was described, in the final report from the Independent Committee of Investigation as, “accounts were kept and managed in a loose and unsatisfactory manner”. Contributing to this conclusion, was a five per cent building fund, that was considered to have impaired the liquidity of the AAU. However, the personal fortunes of the individuals involved in the organization would belie that suggestion. The lack of consistency in the quality of the engravings and the prints sent to the subscribers was an issue as was the delinquent mailing of the prints, as late as twelve months. The concept of “amateur merchant” as the appropriate guardian of the American Art-Union is ironic. Certainly, they were cavalier in their tone and bearing, which would have inspired the ire of some. Competition, is seems, did create some doubt within the organization.
The only art union with which the AAU did not maintain friendly relations was the International Art-Union. One artist, Thomas Whitley, whose work was not accepted, expressed his complaints to the New York Herald. James Gordan Bennett, editor, printed his complaints and those of others. He had his own complaints about the new-comer newspaper, The New York Times, with whom the AAU was working closely. A discounted rate of a penny a copy, as opposed to two-penny, didn’t make the other newspapers happy either. A protracted public discourse over the course of two years along with unfair business practices and the New York Assembly’s investigation into gaming practices piled on the negative discourse regarding the American Art-Union. Their reputation suffered as did their egos.
It has been suggested that hubris was the AAU’s downfall. This may well be bourne out as all of the art in their collection was sold at the final auction on December 15-17, 1852. Although the American Art-Union was the brunt of ‘high brow’ art and artists of the day, it was their choices that informed a keen new audience of art aficionados. As the country endeavored to define whom it was at mid-century, so did the American Art-Union codify and define what the Art of America was to be—it was proud, defiant, confident and quintessentially American. These character qualities were required in the landscapes, the genre painting and the historical imagery if they were to be chosen by the AAU. Artists, like Leutze, would paint “Westward the Coarse of Empire Takes its Way” to emphasize the vastness of possibilities in the American future and paint “Washington Crossing the Delaware”(to inspire the reformers in Europe). George Caleb Bingham would reflect the tension of the unknown and the excitement of the West in, “The Concealed Enemy”(1845) as well as the independent and optimistic spirit in his “The Jolly Flatboatmen”(1846). And, Thomas Cole’s “Arcadia” and “Youth” would lend a comforting, moralizing tone to the landscapes that inspired two generations of artists.
History would support the American Art-Union’s choices. Many of the paintings are hanging in the Halls of Congress, within the White House, in the Metropolitan and the Boston Museum of Art. In the New York Times article, “Memorial of the Committee of Management”, the President of the American Art-Union reported that “the Memorialists felt deeply injured…the extensive circulation of engraved copies… of American genius, thus affording the surest means for educating the public taste…thus keeping alive and extending a knowledge of the progress and condition of the arts”. This was their goal and would be their legacy.
- ^ The Apollo Association (1839). Constitution of “The Apollo Association for the promotion of the Fine Arts in the United States” as it appears in Cowdrey, Mary Bartlett (1953). American Academy of Fine Arts and American Art Union. New York: New York Historical Society. p.101
- ^ Baker, Charles E. (1953) Introduction: The American Art-Union. Cowdrey, Mary Bartlett (1953). American Academy of Fine Arts and American Art UnionArt Union. p.133
- ^ Sperling, Joy. (Spring, 2002) “Art, Cheap and Good:”The Art Union in England and the United States, 1840-60” Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide: A Journal of Nineteeth-Century Visual Culture. Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide: Spring 2002 (vol 1,issue 1). Retrieved November 10, 2007, from http://19thc-artworldwide.org/spring_02/articles/sper.shtml
- ^ a b Mann, Maybelle (1977). The American Art-Union. Washington, D.C.: Collage. p.19
- ^ Trachtenberg, Alan (1989) The ideology of American success. Reading American Photographs:Images as History Mathew Brady to Walker Evans. New York: Hill and Wang. p.38
- ^ * Myers, Kenneth John (2000) “The Public Display of Art in New York City, 1664-1914”
- Dearinger, David B.,Ed. Rave Reviews: American Art and Its Critic, 1826-1925 New York: National Academy of Design. p.40
- ^ Goetzmann, William N. and Goetzmann, William H. (1986) The West of the Imagination. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. p.101
- ^ Baker, p.98
- ^ Baker, p.101
- ^ The Apollo Association. Correspondence. Article 10th—Committee of Management. p.103
- ^ Baker, p.100
- ^ Sperling, Wealth and Social Ties of Committee.
- ^ Baker, p.104
- ^ Baker, p.103
- ^ Baker, p. 152
- ^ Myers, p.41
- ^ New York Times.(1852) American Art Union.;”Report of Affairs”. http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf? Retrieved November 11, 2007.
- ^ Baker, p.146
- ^ Baker, p.144
- ^ Sperling.
- ^ New York Times (1853) “Memorial of the Committee of Management, The American Art- Union. http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-freepdf