Tuesday, October 13, 2009

All in the Details

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:

William Sidney Mount Diary Entry

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:

Conservatory Water, Central Park

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!

—Katie Steiner

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Comments (8)

  1. K. Donkin Says:

    I loved the American Stories exhibit and will probably come back for a second time. In one of the rooms I thought I noticed a quote, lettered high overhead on the wall, with the word “lose” misspelled as “loose.” Can this be?

  2. Katie Steiner Says:

    Thanks so much for your comment, which refers to the quote by Charles Willson Peale appearing in the gallery devoted to the first chronological section of our exhibition. The full quote, excerpted from Peale’s July 3, 1820 letter to Thomas Jefferson, reads as follows:

    “I love the Art of Painting, but the greatest merit of execution on subjects that have not a virtuous tendency, loose all their value in my estimation.”

    To modern eyes, it seems that one of two things has happened: either the artist has misspelled the word lose by inserting a stray “o”, or we at the Met forgot to use spell check before affixing the quote to our gallery wall. To address the first possibility, I’ll mention that in Peale’s time, English spelling had not yet been entirely standardized. In fact, if we look up the verb lose in the Oxford English Dictionary, we find several examples, particularly from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, of the word being spelled with an extra “o”, just like in Peale’s correspondence. Although the artist was writing in the early nineteenth century, his letter suggests that alternate spellings of lose had a certain amount of staying power.

    I’m also happy to affirm that the extra “o” isn’t a typo on our part, but actually appears in Peale’s letter. In fact, my process for verifying the wording of—and spelling in—the artist’s statement was very similar to the process of checking our quote by Mount, which I discussed in the post above. Much of Peale’s correspondence has been published, so I first checked The Selected Papers of Charles Willson Peale and his Family (ed. Lillian B. Miller), a five-volume series which we have in our library in the American Wing. (FYI, the quote in question appears on page 831 in volume 3.) Sure enough, lose was spelled here with an extra “o”. In order to confirm this secondary source, I contacted a manuscripts librarian at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, which houses Peale’s July 3, 1820 letter to Jefferson. The librarian very kindly pulled the original letter, double checked the quote, and confirmed that it was correct as published in the Selected Papers.

    So, even though Peale’s quote may look a little strange, we did our due diligence to make sure it was right. All the same, many thanks for your response and your sharp eyes!

  3. Josh Says:

    Dear Ms. Steiner,

    I attend high school and visited your exhibition over the weekend. My teacher wanted us to write on one of the paintings that we like. I enjoy painting and use oil paints. I was just wondering how do the paintings get cleaned and are the colors the same as when the artist painted on the canvas. Thank you, Josh

  4. Katie Steiner Says:

    Thanks, Josh, for your interest in the show and for your terrific questions. We’re actually planning a future post that will address how some of the paintings in the exhibition have changed as they’ve aged, and how these changes enhance the stories that the works tell, so stay tuned!

  5. Katie Steiner Says:

    Hi again, Josh—I consulted with one of our paintings conservators here at the Museum in order to answer your questions about the ways in which oil paintings change and are cleaned. Paintings in oil tend to be rather stable, but all paintings change in some way as they age. These changes can be subtle or pronounced depending on the techniques used by the artist. If you’re interested in learning more about the process of cleaning a painting, you can find some useful information on the website for the American Institute for Conservation. In addition, some museums, like the Tate, Art Institute of Chicago, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Museum of Modern Art present conservation case studies that you might find interesting. Many print resources about painting conservation are also available. Our conservator recommends Nicolaus Knut’s The Restoration of Paintings (Cologne: Könemann, 1999), which is well illustrated. Copies are available through the New York Public Library. I hope these resources help!

  6. Bob R Says:

    I enjoyed reading the story of your finding where Chase painted his “Lake for Miniature Yachts.” I think that is one of the reasons why I like “Eel Spearing in Setauket.” I learned a little about the local history of Strong’s Neck and I can almost picture where Wm S. Mount was when he painted. I’m looking forward reading more of your blog and going to the exhibit. Go Ephs

  7. Leslie Sewell Says:

    What a wonderful story. As a reporter/film-maker I totally agree with the need to verify and research information. I wouldn’t have expected any less from the Met but I’m glad to see my prejudices confirmed.

  8. Susan Henry Says:

    I looked closely at the painting, Cider Making, near Setauket, Long Island. I noticed hills in the background of the painting, but I don’t believe Long Island has any hills as high as those. Is this the artist’s license? Even so, these paintings are a delight. I love all the details, especially all the dogs–not very many purebreds then–just dawgs!

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