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Guide to the American Art-Union Print Collection
1840-1851
 PR 159

New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
(212) 873-3400


New-York Historical Society

Collection processed by Jenny Gotwals

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on May 03, 2022
Description is in English.

Historical Note

The American Art-Union was first known as the Apollo Association for the Promotion of the Fine Arts in the United States. The Apollo Association was founded by James Herring, a businessman who was concerned that American artists had no place to show or sell their paintings other than their own studios. He opened the Apollo Gallery in New York City in 1838 to remedy this situation, and in January of 1839 came up with the idea of a subscription organization to better distribute artists' works to the interested public. The Apollo Association was initially successful, with 814 members subscribing in its first year. When sufficient funds were not forthcoming to compensate Herring for his gallery space and labor, he was forced to withdraw his gallery as an exhibition space for the Association. After the break with Herring, the Apollo Association renamed itself the American Art-Union (AAU) in 1840 (a change which became official in 1844) and tried to find new gallery space to show artworks the Union purchased.

The subscription-based AAU charged five dollars per year to its members, which entitled each to an annual premium of one engraving published by the Union after a contemporary work of American art in their collection. One of the goals of the organization was to foster an American school of painting, both by promoting artists and developing an appreciative audience. Most of the artwork purchased and engraved for distribution by the AAU was historical in subject, as was the fashion of the day. Toward the end of the 1840s, however, the AAU approached Thomas Cole, who specialized in landscape and allegorical subjects, to paint a four-part series based on the theme of the "Voyage of Life." The AAU planned to issue engravings after the four paintings to subscribing members but never did. "Youth" alone was issued as a member print; the other three appeared as frontispieces in the Bulletin of the American Art-Union for October 1850 ("Childhood") and November 1850 ("Manhood" and "Old Age").

The AAU flourished as the demand for its product grew larger with each passing year. By 1849 the Art-Union boasted 18,960 members, and did well by them. In 1844 and 1847 members received both an annual and a second print; in 1844 they also received an illustrated book, Harvey's American Landscape Scenery. In 1848 the AAU began publishing its illustrated monthly art journal. In 1848 and 1849 books with Felix O.C. Darley illustrations of Washington Irving stories were issued to every member in addition to their print. In 1850 and 1851 members received five small prints in addition to the customary large print.

In addition to issuing prints, the Art-Union purchased other paintings and artworks from artists with the remainder of the funds collected, which were distributed among the members by means of an annual lottery. Each member was awarded one chance in the lottery, in which original paintings by popular artists such as William Sidney Mount and Thomas Cole were among the prizes.

Its popularity created a mammoth organization that became difficult to administer. Out-of-town members also rose to more than two thirds the total number, forcing the AAU to spend more money on postage than anticipated. The critical blow to the AAU, however, came in 1852 when the New York State Supreme Court found the yearly lottery of artworks to be illegal. The AAU was forced to dissolve, and in 1852 held an auction to sell off the paintings and sculptures in their collection. In 1863, those that went unsold, as well as the records of the organization, were given to the New-York Historical Society, many members of which had also been AAU subscribers.

Sources:

Mann, Maybelle. The American Art-Union. Jupiter, Fl.: ALM Associates, 1987.

Cowdrey, Mary Bartlett. American Academy of Fine Arts and American Art-Union. New York: New-York Historical Society, 1953.