"The entire relation of art to the public has changed within the last ten years; its products are a more familiar commodity; studio buildings, artist receptions, auction sales of special productions, the influence of the press, constant exhibitions... these and many other circumstances have greatly increased the mercantile and social importance of art."
-- Henry T. Tuckerman, 1867
And you thought that merchandising fine art was an innovation of the 1980s? The observation above was made following the Civil War, during a period of growth that lifted the national economy and buoyed the demand for art. It appears in the catalogue for "The Tenth Street Studio Building: Artist-Entrepreneurs from the Hudson River School to the American Impressionists, " an exhibition of 150 paintings, photos and engravings organized for the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton by Annette Blaugrund, director of the National Academy in New York. On view June 8-Aug. 10, 1997, the show is not only a scholarly tour du force but is itself a beautifully installed visual experience.
Art critic Henry T. Tuckerman, author of the chatty "Book of the Artists, " was one of the rare non-artists allowed to work in the Tenth Street Studio Building, the first modern structure designed specifically for artists. This unusual building -- it stood until 1956 at 51 West Tenth, on the north side of the street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues -- featured not only studios but also exhibition space and sales conference rooms.
The Tenth Street Studio Building was erected in 1857 by James Boorman Johnston (1822-1887), a builder whose brother John Taylor Johnston was an art collector and founding president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1870. Johnston commissioned as its architect Richard Morris Hunt (1827-1895), who had recently returned from Beaux-Arts training in Paris and who would go on to design the Metropolitan Museum as well as a number of Fifth Avenue mansions.
Johnston knew that Greenwich Village was becoming the new center for artists, who had begun to move north from what we now know as TriBeCa. New York University had already been renting rooms to artists and writers in the towers of its first building, erected at the northeast corner of Washington Square between 1833-36.
Eventually an astonishing number of major American artists worked in the building's three floors of studios encircling a central communal gallery. They included Albert Bierstadt, William Merritt Chase, Frederic E. Church, William Haseltine, Martin Johnson Heade, John La Farge and Emmanuel Leutze. In her detailed essays (a fruit of dissertation research), Blaugrund reports that the building's artists became so close-knit as to undertake painting expeditions together up the Hudson River to the Catskill Mountains or to Italy, and the paintings she selected reflect those jaunts.
One of the most breathtaking images in the exhibition is Haseltine's Rocks at Nahant (c.1862), a crystalline close-up of tawny jagged boulders, a wedge of frothy sea and an enormous turquoise and azure sky. Other artists display idiosyncratic passions, such as William Bradford's for the golden luminosity of sunrise, as evident in The Coast of Labrador (1868).
As one might expect from a group artists chosen on the basis of the location of their studios, these pictures display a variety of genres and have a certain unevenness in quality. Lemuel E. Wilmarth's Fresh Gathered (Girl with Peaches) (1881), shows a dreamy young woman, a broken strap causing her jumper top to droop, displaying an abundant basket in front of her abdomen as a Bougereau-esque picture of saccharine come-hither fertility. For a sharper vision of childhood, note the vivacious tensions of Winslow Homer's radiant Snap the Whip (1882).
Historical investigations are stimulated by contemporary interests, of course, and this show's identification of its protagonists as "Artist-Entrepreneurs" capitalizes on the 1980s emphasis of artists as pragmatic careerists rather than poetic visionaries. A predecessor exhibition on this theme was "Albert Bierstadt: Art & Enterprise, " organized by the Brooklyn Museum in 1991. Bierstadt is well described in Blaugrund's catalogue as a showman promoter of his panoramic landscapes depicting looming, out-of-scale peaks, but he is poorly represented in the show by a small painting, even if it is a reduction of the grandiose Domes of Yosemite (1867), which he displayed in the draped and darkened gallery of the Studio Building.
Bierstadt's predecessor in such theatrical presentations was Church, who in 1859 had displayed his awesome Heart of the Andes there by gaslight, surrounded by dried palm fronds. Church hired an agent to manage the promotion, which included United States and English exhibition tours as well as print reproductions of his awesome painting, and commissioned an accompanying guidebook detailing the flora and fauna it depicts.
The marketing worked, and people lined up outside the Studio Building, eager to pay 25 cents to see the amazing image. As with Bierstadt's Domes, Heart of the Andes is represented in the show by a smaller version of that work. It would have been wonderful to see one of these 19th-century installation spectacles recreated, and in full size. Perhaps the curator will augment the show when it goes on view at the National Academy, Aug. 21-Nov. 16, 1997.
Central to the Southampton installation are a few actual still life conglomerations as if from the studio of turn-of-the century painter William Merritt Chase (1849-1916). Chase made a specialty of depicting his Tenth Street studio, and his several paintings of it have been brought together here. These Impressionist images show a sparkling environment cluttered with carved furniture strewn with his accumulations of exotic objet d'art, decorative bowls, plates, boxes, fabrics, pictures and flowers. These were both souvenirs of world travel and demonstrations to potential customers his own worldly sophistication in contrast to earlier artists' "provincial" American identities. Brought to life in this installation, here several carved wooden tables overflow with tapestries, urns, maps, plaster busts, candelabra, antiques, found objects, abundant reeds and blossoms. They dramatize the theatrical setting that some artists made out of their Tenth Street Studio, marvelously augmenting the paintings produced at this early site of the contemporary collaboration between art making and marketing.
"The Tenth Street Studio Building: Artist-Entrepreneurs from the Hudson River School to the American Impressionists" is on view at the Parrish Art Museum, Southhampton, June 8-Aug. 10, 1997. It subsequently appears at the National Academy, New York, Aug. 21-Nov. 16, 1997.
SUZAAN BOETTGER is an art historian and critic in New York.