As a research assistant in the Met’s Department of American Paintings and Sculpture, I spend much of my time working with details. I check facts, organize and record information in our files and collections database, proofread written materials, and perform a host of other nitty-gritty tasks related to our projects. Details may get a bad rap for being boring, tedious, or insignificant, but I love them—or at least I have almost boundless patience for them. Accurate details are critical for supporting the larger arguments about works of art that our curators make in publications, wall labels, and lectures. With this in mind, I find it satisfying to roll up my sleeves, hit the books (and electronic resources), arrive at answers to questions, and know that I’ve helped to maintain the high quality of our information.
While working on the American Stories exhibition, I learned that there’s nothing quite like a major loan show to provide a constant stream of detail-oriented tasks. One of my more crucial fact-checking missions was to verify the language of artists’, authors’, and art critics’ statements that appear in prominent lettering on the walls of the exhibition galleries. The statements have all been quoted in the art historical literature, but it was important to check them against primary sources—the places in which they were first written or published—to avoid any chance of emblazoning our gallery walls with misinformation. In the case of our quotation by William Sidney Mount, I had to find a way of verifying the artist’s words in the original diary in which he wrote them. According to our secondary sources, Mount recorded the following observation in his July 1, 1850, diary entry:
I must paint such pictures as speak at once to the spectator, scenes that are most popular—that will be understood on the instant.
Mount’s diaries are housed at the Long Island Museum of American Art, History & Carriages in Stony Brook, New York. I called the curatorial department there, hoping that someone might be able to retrieve the diary and check Mount’s entry for me. The Long Island Museum’s top-notch staff not only located the text in Mount’s diary, but also scanned and forwarded an image of the sentence in question so that we would have the evidence for our records. Below is the snippet view of Mount’s diary, with the artist’s statement plainly visible:
Mount’s original diary entry confirmed the information from our secondary source, allowing us to reproduce the quotation with confidence. This exercise also demonstrates the extent of the information—and the generous assistance—that can be just a phone call away.
Some of my other fact-finding missions were more experiential, as was the case with a query about the location depicted in The Lake for Miniature Yachts by William Merritt Chase. The painting shows a couple of cute kids, circa 1888, floating sailboats on the Conservatory Water in Central Park. Because the buildings in the upper right corner of the picture weren’t recognizable to us (a lot has changed since 1888, after all), the vantage point from which Chase worked wasn’t immediately clear. In order to solve the mystery, I borrowed my department’s digital camera one day this summer and strolled down Fifth Avenue to East 72nd Street, where I entered the park and walked around the Conservatory Water until I found “the spot.” My results, next to Chase’s painting, are below:
The precise location at which Chase set up his easel so many years ago may seem like a minor point (the view is from the west side of the pond, next to where the Hans Christian Andersen statue stands, looking roughly to the northeast), but our curators were interested in having this information on hand as a way of enhancing their descriptions of the painting.
The above examples show that, even when the scope of the project is small, the process of obtaining needed information can take a researcher down some interesting paths. I sincerely hope that the care and finesse that have gone into every aspect of American Stories will be felt by our visitors. Enjoy the show, visit often, and delight in the details!