The Artists' Fund Society of the City of New York: a recently acquired set of their sale catalogues, 1860-1889

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Part of the story of the rising professional self-consciousness among American artists during the nineteenth century is the creation of art academies and associations. Following a model first set up in Philadelphia, artists in New York in 1859 set up “The Artists’ Fund Society.”

“The name of this association shall be ” The Artists’ Fund Society.” Its location, the city of New York. Its objects, the accumulation of a fund for the aid of its members in disablement, in sickness and distress, and the assistance of the widows, children, and families of deceased members.” —Extract from the Consitution, Article 1, Name.

Funds were raised chiefly by an annual auction of member’s paintings. More than twenty seven auctions were held between 1860 and 1889. The Library now has an extensive set of the catalogues for these sales. [Call number: (Ex) Item 5732011. At right is a clipping about the 1875 sale, laid into the catalogue for that year.] Many are priced by member David Johnson (1827-1908). Some has his comments. Such priced catalogues are a unique source for tracking changing art values, shifts in taste, as well as supplying raw data for establishing an artist’s oeuvre.

A brief history of the fund is given in the catalogue for the 26th sale (1886):

“After the death of Mr. Ranney, which occurred twenty-six years ago, his pictures were sold at auction, for the benefit Of his widow and children. A specific sum of money being required to relieve a mortgage on the house in which his widow lived, his brother artists determined each to contribute a picture to be sold with, the Ranney collection. To accomplish this end the business required an organization, and the necessary officers were duly appointed.

At the close of this generous act on the part of the artists-the pecuniary results being much larger than they had hoped. for-it was resolved to Continue the organization, in order to be prepared to meet any similar emergency in the future. Several plans by which the object might be effected were brought forward and discussed arid finally the one by which the ‘Artists’ Fund Society’ is now governed was unanimously adopted and in 1861 its charter was obtained from the State.

For twenty-six years the Society has been enabled-from the funds accruing from its annual sales-to afford relief in time cases of misfortune common to all classes of professional men. Since its commencement it has paid thousands of dollars to widows and orphans of deceased members, besides relieving many cases of actual need among the living.

The Society has three funds; the First for the widows and orphans of deceased members; the Second for the relief of members; and the Third a Benevolent Fund which is used to meet the wants of artists not members of the Society.

The first two funds are kept supplied by the annual sales of works contributed by the members. The third fund is made up by donations in pictures or money, from those interested in artists who have been unfortunate through sickness and other causes.

Mrs. A. T. Stewart, some years ago, donated to the Society $2,000 and Mrs. Edwin White, $1,000, which sums were placed to the credit of this fund, invested in U. S. Government bonds, yielding a small but sure revenue, which is judiciously administered by the Board of Control after favorable report by a regular ‘Visiting Committee.’ This Benevolent Fund is inadequate to meet the demands which are constant and increasing.”

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