This collection consists of the over 130 art exhibition catalogues (80 of which are available here) published by the Boston Athenæum between 1827 and 1874 inclusive. These catalogues were compiled on the occasion of the annual exhibitions of historic and contemporary American and European paintings and sculpture that the Athenæum mounted between those years. (The only exception: The Athenæum held no exhibition in 1849, the year it moved into its new headquarters at 10½ Beacon Street.) A statistical analysis of them shows that the Boston Athenæum’s annual exhibitions comprised an average of 240 paintings and, beginning in 1839, 50 sculptures, representing in total the work of over 1,500 individual artists.
These catalogues typically cite the artist’s name, the title of the work of art, and its owner. The lack of an owner’s name usually meant that, at the time of the exhibition, the object was still in the possession of the artist and was probably for sale. The other statistics that are available in modern exhibition catalogues—dimensions of the object, the date of its creation, the specific material of which it was made, or its provenance and exhibition histories—were rarely printed in those of the nineteenth century. Nor were these catalogues usually illustrated, although some of them were individually indexed or at least provided a separate alphabetical list of the names of the living artists represented in the installation. In this, the Athenæum followed the format used in the catalogues of annual exhibitions held at the several other important exhibition venues during this period: the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia and the American Academy of Fine Arts, the National Academy of Design, and the American Art-Union in New York. In each of these cases, the organizing institution published catalogues as a permanent record of the contents of the exhibitions; but since the sort of didactic wall label that one encounters in museums today was not a common feature of nineteenth-century exhibitions, catalogues were also meant to be used by visitors to help them identify each object in the gallery.
Uniquely, the Athenæum, more often than not, published multiple editions of its catalogues each year. These editions could range from two to as many as seven per annum, with each edition reflecting changes, often minor, or, more likely, additions of important works to the exhibition after it had officially opened to the public. In addition, the Athenæum’s exhibitions tended to be on view for longer periods of time than those at other venues—usually stretching to months instead of the 4-6 weeks that was common elsewhere.
Proceeds from the Athenæum’s annual exhibitions, much of it from admission fees and catalogue sales, were substantial and allowed the organization to make a number of important acquisitions for its permanent collection, at least during the antebellum years. This combination of the display of major new acquisitions along with masterworks lent to the exhibitions by artists and collectors only served to increase the Athenæum gallery’s significance as the major venue for viewing art in nineteenth-century Boston. It held this position until voluntarily relinquishing it to the new Museum of Fine Arts in the second half of the 1870s.
A comprehensive index of the contents of the catalogues in this collection was compiled and published by the Boston Athenæum in 1980 (Robert F. Perkins Jr. & William J. Gavin III, The Boston Athenæum Art Exhibition Index 1827-1874) and remains a standard source for the study of nineteenth-century art exhibitions. That publication is divided into four very useful sections: an index by artists’ names, one by owners’ names, a third by subject, and a final section of transcriptions of supplementary text, mostly appropriate quotations, that accompany a small percentage of the listings in the catalogues themselves.
David B. Dearinger
Susan Morse Hilles Curator of Paintings & Sculpture