Monday, September 13, 2010

The Rhode Island Art Association & the Ecology of Culture in 1850s RI

This is an exhibition about the dawn of the art world in 1850s Providence. 

It is a story about the founding of the Rhode Island Art Association (RIAA) in December 1853 and the dream of founding an Art Museum and Design School in Rhode Island.

Its narrative arc contains a cautionary tale about how the Panic of 1857 defeated this synergistic moment of optimism. But in the long run it is a hopeful story about the long-term inspirational legacy of the RIAA, which was referred to again and again throughout the nineteenth century as a promise that must be fulfilled.

The Rhode Island Art Association is the ancestor of the Providence Public Library as chartered (1871; opened 1878), the Rhode Island School of Design (founded 1877), the Providence Art Club (founded 1880), the RISD Museum of Art (opened Oct 1893), and the Newport Art Association (founded 1912) & Newport Art Museum (opened at the Richard Morris Hunt Griswold House in 1916). The RIAA unlocks another view of the founding of the RI Foundation (1916), and the American Academy in Rome (1894).

Bookends for this exhibition are 1850, when the first of the five annual Industrial Exhibitions with Fine and Applied Arts sections were held in Providence from 1850-54 and sponsored by the RI- Society for the Encouragement of Domestic Industry (RI-SEDI).

Working on the Fine Arts exhibitions for these Industrial Fairs were the RI architect Thomas Tefft (1826-1859) and the Athenaeum member and future NYT sculpture critic Albert Jones (1821-1887). Together, they juried the 1853 exhibition, and had ambitions for something more. The RIAA was born out of this ambition.

The other bookend is 1860, when Albert Jones sent the five-foot wide Coliseum photograph back from Italy after Tefft’s sudden death of fever – attended to by Jones. Albert Jones’ gift is one of many tributes paid to Tefft in 1860, and also a comment on the promise of Art and the challenge of commerce. It is about the arena where the battles of the RIAA were fought.

Would the RIAA continue? What would happen to Tefft’s plans for an Art Museum and school, and the companion Merchants’ Exchange – where the work of current RI artist, designers, and manufacturers was to be on constant view?

Would the terms of Tefft’s will be honored? “After the lapse of ten years my stock…shall become the property of the RIAA providing the Directors of that Institution shall carry out the true intentions of the prospectus…” (Dec 11, 1856).  [It was not, and his bequest lost.]

Just prior to his own death in 1887, Jones echoed this ongoing dream in his own bequest that led to the founding of the RISD Museum of Art, (after a 4-year lawsuit with the Providence Art Institute): “I give …[this] fund for an Art Institute in the City of Providence. When the citizens of Providence shall have contributed the funds necessary to form an Institute worthy of the City for the promotion of Art, then this sum with accumulated interest shall be permanently invested…” (May 1886, written in Rome)
This history remains relevant in 2010. I believe this is a timely exhibition because the issues addressed here tie in to current practical problems and give historical perspective to the private non-profit in America.

Like: what should we do about the boarded-up Arcade and the vacant lot next to it where Tefft originally proposed the Merchant’s Exchange? What can we learn from the changes Tefft proposed to the Arcade so as to better relate the two adjoining sites?

Or, what strategies will best help cultural institutions, including the Athenaeum, make it through the current economic depression?  Many of RI’s other cultural institutions are undergoing a transition in leadership, and every historic institution is under pressure to clarify its mission and relevance for the 21st century. It is a critical time with much to lose.

I strongly believe that scholars have a contribution to make to current policy decision-making.  Among other things, historians introduce a different theory of time and slow down the rush to fix it now, regardless of the future cost.  I am a scholar with a Twitter account. I hope to be there with the Twits and offer them, if not a book, at least a label with more than 140 characters. For it is about insisting on a different theory of time and the humility to look at the current situation from the perspective of more than one’s own life experience, or the buzz of the instant.

The RIAA can tell us about best practices for citizens supporting private non-profits initiatives that you think the government should be supporting but they just do not. Not now, and not then. Almost all of RI’s cultural institutions have been founded by citizen initiatives, and still look to their membership for financial support. We might wish this were Europe where the State supports the Arts, and the concept of the private non-profit is considered an insult to people’s sense of a State’s obligation to the people. But that is not the situation we have in America. We are here.

I hope an exhibition like this can help private non-profits explain their historic role as incubators of future talent, like Jones & Tefft - two Rhode Island boys (from struggling families) who dreamed big dreams, left bequests to the people of RI, and an idea that inspired for decades to come.

I hope this exhibition also germinates more conversations about growing local talent, growing local cultural institutions and local businesses – and what happens when those cycles of growth don’t line up. How best to plan for cyclical economic downturns, and not have every good idea put on hold for a generation?

© Nancy Austin, 2010
Newport, RI

Sunday, September 12, 2010

About the Providence Athenaeum

The Providence Athenaeum is one of sixteen surviving membership libraries founded across America between 1731 and the Civil War. In the face of centuries of harsh ambivalence about the proper role of the state in supporting the arts and humanities, these independent civic institutions are an enduring response to the uniquely American private non-profit approach to funding culture.

Historic membership libraries offer public programming and are open to new members. They can be supported in these cities across the United States: Providence, Newport, New Haven, New York, Boston, Salem, Portsmouth (NH), Portland (ME), Philadelphia, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Tyron (NC), Charleston (SC), La Jolla (CA), and San Francisco. Links are posted on the Providence Athenaeum website:

Ongoing since its founding, the Providence Athenaeum has lived a theory of time that gives density to place and memory across generations. In 1838, the community moved from a few rooms in the downtown Providence Arcade (1828) to their permanent home at the south-east corner of Benefit St and College Hill, on the East Side of the city.  From this location the Providence Athenaeum has offered an open door for the lifelong learner and a haven for the solitary pursuit of self-culture. Sometimes it has been an incubator of radical reform as like-minds implement a plan for change. For others, the Athenaeum is about opportunities for shared social exchange and the making of community. One current marker of this vitality would be the Providence Athenaeum’s Friday night Salon series - unleashed on the city in 2005 under the inspired leadership of Christina Bevilacqua – providing a widely emulated template for place-based conversations. New technology has not diminished the hunger for the tangible.

© Nancy Austin, 2010
Newport, RI

Thomas Tefft’s Plans for an Art Museum and Design School in RI (1853)

The Rhode Island Art Association (RIAA) was founded in Dec 1853. Its stated mission was to establish an Art Museum and Design School in RI. We now know that RI architect Thomas Tefft was working toward this goal for the entire year prior to the founding of the RIAA.

The Tefft portfolio preserved in the Brown University Archives contains a sequence of drawings that can be organized to map this evolution from Dec 1852 to Dec 1853 and the split off to form the RIAA. With Brown’s permission, a rough-cut video of Tefft’s digitized drawings tentatively dated and set in sequence is being shown at the Providence Athenaeum exhibition, with clarifying text and other explanations added. The finished video will be posted at:

Exhibited at the Athenaeum from Sept 1-23 are the key original drawings that show Tefft's year of transformation in thinking about how to successfully create these new cultural bodies in RI.

In Phase 1, from Dec 13, 1852 to May 16, 1853, Tefft began working on a new Franklin Lyceum Building, and kept expanding it to include more space for an Art Gallery.

Lyceum #1 Jan 4-March 29, 1853 is the first drawing shown here. This was likely used to solicit funds for the planned new Franklin Lyceum building on a specific site. It was a dynamic time for the institution, with more people, like the art dealer Seth Vose, joining at this time.

Tefft drawings reproduced by permission of Brown University Archives. With special thanks to Jennifer Betts, Interim University Archivist  for her assistance throughout this project.
By April 25th, the Lyceum had raised $2,500 for a new building, and on May 2nd they discussed the legal changes needed to hold $50,000 in property, suggesting they were committed to construction. Throughout April and May 1853, until his final report of May 16th, Tefft’s plans for the new Lyceum Building become ever more ambitious. The next drawings are from this expanding and final stage of Phase 1.

Unexpectedly, Tefft began including larger and larger Art Galleries in the building. The final design shown here as Lyceum #3 is signed and ated May 2, 1853. The proposal features an Art Gallery 32’ x 58’.,and no art exhibition space this size was built in RI until RISD added the Waterman Gallery in 1897 - a major exhibition space still in use. Accompanying this is my proposed facade attribution, a drawing currently filed as unidentified office building.

Then, on May 16, 1853, Tefft reported to the Franklin Lyceum on the plans & circular that would help them solicit more funds for a new building. But this is an ending, not a beginning. Tefft’s report was received, filed, and his committee discharged. He does not actively engage with the Franklin Lyceum after this.

Phase 2: May 16 - Dec 5, 1853

The Rhode Island Art Association grew from here.

Between May and Dec 1853, Tefft designed a kind of cultural center that would house RI’s first Art Museum, an Art School, Art Education School, Lecture Hall, and have a common library and offices for a suite of civic organizations. The proposal included Studios, and rooms for Drawing, Casting, and Modeling.  It appears to be merely a draft, possibly on tracing paper. No other plans from this project survive in the Tefft portfolio at Brown.

I have dated this drawing as before the founding of the RIAA because that group, formed Dec 5, 1853, is not referred to in the cluster of societies housed on the second floor of the plan.  The plan does refer to the RI Society, which is another name for the RI Society for the Encouragement of Domestic Industry (a group forever reporting on the challenges of their cumbersome name and common abbreviations, like the RI Society, that they considered adopting). Since Tefft was a member of at least 3 of the 4 groups included, it seems likely to propose this project as a transitional endeavor between Tefft’s Franklin Lyceum Building proposals and the clear need to begin a group dedicated to founding an Art Museum and Design School.

A historic drawing in RI's cultural history. Here Thomas Tefft makes the first concrete proposal for an Art Museum in RI, in 1853. This is forty years before the first Art Museum in RI, the RISD Museum of Art, opens in the Waterman Building (opposite the First Baptist Church in America) in Oct 1893.
Thus, already in 1853 Tefft designed an Art Museum for a proposed private non-profit collective building. This was the starting point when the RIAA began in Dec 1853 with its mission to found in RI a School of Design & Art Museum.


Phase 1

Lyceum #1            2-story, 3-bay            Site 30’x80’                     Dec 1852 - March 29, 1853

Lyceum #2A:         3-story, 5-bay            Site 45’x100’                  April 1853

Lyceum #3:           4-story, 3-bay            Site 35’x100’                  April - May 16, 1853

Phase 2: Art Museum, Schools, Library +

                              4-story                        Site 180’x300’               May 17 - Dec 5, 1853

Rhode Island Art Association 1st meeting called  Dec 5, 1853

© Nancy Austin, 2010
Newport, RI

The Rhode Island Art Association’s Drawing School & the Group of 1855

For over a century the art world of 1850s Providence, Rhode Island has been remembered as a kind of dark age illuminated by such bare achievements as the first sale of a painting by gallery dealer, Seth Vose from his Westminster St. art supply shop, or the mutual banding together of five young painters to form the so-called Group of 1855 as a vanguard of culture. This Group of 1855 was composed of John Nelson Arnold, Frederick Batcheller, James Lewin, Tom Robinson, and Marcus Waterman, and in 1855 these young men ranged in age from 18 to 21. A quarter century later, when they were in their forties, these same men went on to be make an enduring contribution helping to launch the Providence Art Club, founded in 1880.  But for understanding the art scene in Providence in the 1850s, perhaps twentieth-century historians relied too heavily on the late-life reminiscences of the John Nelson Arnold, where he first referred to the youthful debut of he and his friends into the Providence art world of the 1850s.

The Group of 1855 is better understood as one response to the broad movement that was the Rhode Island Art Association (RIAA). In the winter of 1855-56, the RIAA held its second art exhibition, which the architect Thomas Tefft publicized nationally. The RIAA continued to collect work for their planned Design School and Art Museum.  This growing art collection included Asher B. Durand’s 1855 painting, Chocorua Peak, bought from the exhibition they had just held and currently in the collection of the RISD, Museum of Art. The RIAA’s collection also included copies of antique sculpture in either plaster or marble - which Tefft preferred. For example, the marble bust of Young Augustus in the collection of the Providence Athenaeum was the kind of work that the RIAA would have sought for a study collection.

Illustrations from the collections of the Providence Athenaeum.

The RIAA 1855 exhibition was advertised nationally in progressive art journals like the new Crayon.

Marble copy of antique sculpture like this bust of Augustus was an important part 
of the Rhode Island Art Association's collection for a planned Art Museum, c. 1854.

John Sullivan Lincoln's Portrait of John Russell Bartlett.  Lincoln was the elder statesman of the RIAA drawing class. He was in his forties at the time, while most of the other young men were 16 to early 20s, including John Nelson Arnold whose often-relied on late-life memories of 1850s Providence reflect his youthful gaze.

Near the end of the exhibition, the local RI portrait painter, John Sullivan Lincoln, started a petition signed by 18 members of the RIAA to open the RIAA rooms on North Main St on three evenings a week for a drawing class. It has long been known that Lincoln, the Group of 1855, and others petitioned the RIAA for a drawing class. But it was never suspected that these classes were held, or that the RIAA had offices, such a growing art collection, and the ability to gather a broad demographic of artists and designers to its cause. Rather, the surviving petition has been considered proof of the lack of opportunities in the 1850s.

Additionally, radical feminist Paulina Wright Davis hosted at least one evening gathering for the young artists in the RIAA drawing school. At the end of his life, John Nelson Arnold still recalled his intimidation at the prospect of meeting senior artists, abolitionists, and feminists at her Salon, and his gratitude for the lifelong friendships that resulted.

The 1856 RIAA drawing class offers a broader view of the growing dynamic art world of 1850s RI.  As we will see, the Group of 1855 is only one small piece of the pie. I have completed brief biographies on the 18 RIAA Drawing School petitioners of whom 16 enrolled in the RIAA’s first drawing classes. I have traced the impact of these RIAA art classes on each student’s professional trajectory over the next decades. This database will be posted on my website soon. If someone were to ask: “What good does an art class do?” – I would begin a conversation with a look at the long-term impact on 16 young Rhode Islanders of these 1856 RIAA drawing classes.

To name but a few of the connections I will be posting later, this drawing class of mostly young men age 16-21, was an important experience for the later entrepreneur and art patron, Walter Richmond.

It was joined by the Bower family who for generations had created the signage that defined Providence as a place, most memorably in the Sign of the Turk’s Head, which is still used to refer to the location at the junction of the old Indian trail now known as Weybosset St and its intersection with Westminster St.  See ADD for more on this site next to the Arcade that architect Thomas Tefft was working on for his proposed 1856 Merchant’s Exchange. 

For generations the Bower family had designed the signage that defined place in Providence. In 2010 people still refer to the corner of Weybosset and Westminster St by its 18th c name: the Sign of Mustapha, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, or in later colloquial - the corner under the Turk's Head. The RIAA was concerned with both fine and applied art, and the latter included all aspects of the built environment and material culture world.

The RIAA drawing class brought together 2D and 3D artists and designers, many exploring the new media of photography, including the painter John Nelson Arnold who referred to himself in the 1860 census as a daguerreau artist [sic].  

Also participating was the proto industrial designer, George C. Eliott, who was key to introducing the bicycle to RI.

© Nancy Austin, 2010
Newport, RI

The Una – considered the first feminist newspaper in America (Feb 1853 – Dec 1855) Written and published in Providence, RI by Paulina Wright Davis

The antebellum Rhode Island Art Association was an arena of great concern to first wave feminist Paulina Wright Davis who was writing and publishing the Una at this very moment in Providence.  In particular, the RIAA goal of establishing a design school in RI was a strongly coded message to women, since the first three design schools in American had just been opened between 1848 and 1852 in Philadelphia, Boston, and New York, and all were founded by women and for women. These design schools have been interpreted as being about the need for gentile employment, but Davis and others saw them as a radical hope for women to achieve economic self-sufficiency and escape the slavery of marriage. Even an 1859 New York Times review of design schools observed that they were “for women who, unable and unwilling to become mere drudges in servile occupations, and for the meanest pittance, would be doomed to otherwise sell themselves at the matrimonial alter, or resign themselves to a life of … poverty. Their efforts have been eminently successful.”  More powerfully, the Una quotes a young women who was attending the New England School of Design for women:  “It seems to me as if I had never seen the world before.”

We should recognize the resonating 1854 Rhode Island Art Association exhibition as a historic showcase for women as artists, patrons, and political activists. At least thirty women were patrons loaning art from their own collections in 1854. This was only the second American exhibition of work by the emerging international artist and lesbian, Rosa Bonheur. It included paintings by Jane Stuart, the self-supporting Newport artist and daughter of Gilbert Stuart; a portrait of the path-breaking artist, Angelica Kauffmann; and work from the estate of Sarah Wickes Lippitt (1789-1847), a Rhode Island artist who had trained in Italy and exhibited six paintings at the very first large exhibition held in Rhode Island, in 1829.

I believe that the RIAA exhibition contributors included Davis’s close friend, Lucy Stone, with whom she had organized the epochal first National Woman’s Rights Convention in neighboring Worcester, in 1850. At the RIAA exhibition opening, Davis notes that the RIAA president is proud to preside over a society in which women have equal rights, and asks if Davis, or presumably Stone, would like to address the mixed sex gathering.

Further, Paulina Wright Davis was a lifelong supporter of the sculptor Paul Benjamin Akers (1865-1861), with whom she later traveled in Italy. Indeed, it was her contacts that brought Akers his Washington, D.C. commissions  (which include a marble portrait bust of Davis, now in the collection of the Rhode Island Historical Society).  For the 1854 RIAA exhibition Paulina Wright Davis loaned two portrait busts by Akers from her collection, and both carried riveting political overtones in the years before the Civil War. One is a portrait of the famous abolitionist, Gerritt Smith (unlocated).  The other is a portrait bust of Supreme Court Justice John McLean (Collection of the U.S. Supreme Court). Justice McLean is remembered today as among the “most politically conscious justices in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court” and the dissenting voice in the Dred Scott case of 1856-7. The antebellum Rhode Island Art Association was trailblazing.  It is clear now why the antebellum RIAA echoed across the century in RI discussions about the what and why of establishing a design school and art museum in Rhode Island – even if it has been misinterpreted as to what this resonance was remembering.

In particular, the founding of RISD by Helen Rowe Metcalf must be understood within the context of what of first wave feminist Paulina Wright Davis brought to RI. Davis lived in North Providence from shortly after she arrived here in 1849 to lecture on women’s bodies, until her death in 1876.  (She is buried in Swan Point Cemetery.) As a young women, RISD’s future founder attended Paulina Wright Davis’ lectures, as did Mrs. Metcalf’s sisters-in-law  – who also had been pupils with the radical Margaret Fuller, when she taught in Providence at the Greene St School from 1837-1838. 

I will be presenting a paper on “First Wave Feminism and the Ecology of Culture in Antebellum Rhode Island” at the First Annual Feminist Art History Conference in Washington, D.C. on Nov 5, 2010.

Robert O. Jones and I continue to work on the Holly Home project, the Transcendentalist utopian community founded by Mrs. Davis’s husband, the abolitionist, Thomas Davis.

Margaret Fuller in RI and her legacy is the topic of the Providence Athenaeum’s opening Salon on October 1, 2010 from 5-7pm, presented by Robert O. Jones and Nancy Austin. 

The Hours, by RI miniaturist Edward Malbone (1777-1807)

Actual Title: The Past, Present, and Coming Hours
Collection of the Providence Athenaeum

A feminist history of the Rhode Island Art Association provides a new context for the popular Rhode Island anecdote about the teenage girl who raised $1200 through public subscription in order to buy Edward Malbone's painting The Past, The Present, and Coming Hours for the Providence Athenaeum. Now we can understand that this was 1854, and the community fundraising campaign of nineteen-year old Elizabeth Patten is another expression of what must have been a most euphoric moment of possibility for women. The Providence Athenaeum closed the sale of the Malbone on August 24, 1854 and with credit to Miss Patten, loaned The Hours a week later for the September 4, 1854 opening of the Rhode Island Art Association exhibition.  The so-called “Cult of True Womanhood” does not describe the possibilities available to antebellum Rhode Island women.

© Nancy Austin, 2010
Newport, RI

The Redwood's Dying Gaul - Commissioned for the planned RIAA Museum?

Marble Copy of the Dying Gaul by Paul Akers. Commissioned in 1854 by Edward King. Collection of the Redwood Library. 
The American sculptor Paul Akers spent the summer of 1854 in Providence, probably at the behest of his close friend Paulina Wright Davis. (See entry above on The Una.) Two of his works from Davis’s collection were exhibited at the first RIAA exhibition in Sept 1854. Through the RIAA, Akers met Tefft and the important Newport collector, Edward King, who had contributed two paintings by his well-known uncle, Charles Bird King, to the same exhibition. It is likely in this context that Edward King commissioned Akers to travel to Rome and make the fine marble copy of the Dying Gladiator “executed by Paul Akers” and copies of five other antique sculpture in the Vatican Museums. In Oct 1858, these six marble copies were referred to as being on display in Edward King’s Newport house. 

It is my speculation that Edward King might have intended these works for the planned RIAA Art Museum, since it is documented that Tefft and Akers were working together to create a free museum of the best marble copies of antique sculpture.  As we have seen, the RIAA plans for an Art Museum were derailed first by the Panic of 1857 and then by the death of Tefft in 1859.  Akers died shortly afterwards, in 1861.

In 1861-3, Edward King began to try and give the Dying Gladiator and the other marble copies to the Redwood Library, if they could make a place for them.  The Redwood had expanded once in 1858, but was almost immediately overwhelmed with a gift from Charles Bird King of 78 paintings, to be hung in the new room, followed by a bequest at his death in 1862 of an additional 75 paintings.

The Redwood finally accepted Edward King’s gift of the six marble copies in 1869.  In a thank you letter written by Hamilton Hoppin (of Bogardus and Hoppin, the NYC-based firm that was involved in the Franklin Lyceum’s Benjamin Franklin commission of 1858) Hoppin notes that this “little group is but the nucleus of a larger collection of statuary art, which ought in the future form a portion of the treasures of this institution.” The Redwood added the main room that you currently enter into in 1875, followed by other additions in 1912, 1940, 1985, and 2005.

The Redwood’s Dying Gaul and other marble copies are still exhibited. This is positive but unusual considering that the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Boston Museum of Art, and RISD, Museum of Art all abruptly stopped exhibiting casts and copies in the late 1930s. In many cases these were destroyed, or even broken up and used as rubble for road construction. The BMFA has some on display again. The RISD Parthenon Friezes are still installed in what is now Furniture Storage.  The canon for copies has changed again, and an international conference was recently held on copies of antique sculpture and their meaning in the history of nineteenth to mid-twentieth century American art.

Finally, it is also worth noting here that the famous Washington (D.C.) Art Association, of which Charles Bird King of Newport was a founding year member, postdates the Rhode Island Art Association. The RIAA was founded in Dec 1853 and Charles Bird King exhibited work in the first September 1854 RIAA Art Exhibition. The Washington Art Association lasted for five years, from 1856-1860.

© Nancy Austin, 2010
Newport, RI

Tefft's Merchant's Exchange project next to the Arcade (1856)

Thomas Tefft (1826-1859).  Proposal for a Merchant's Exchange next to the Arcade. Collection of the Brown University Archives.
The 11-year architecture career of RI native Thomas Tefft was brief but of enduring impact because of the legacy of the Rhode Island Art Association (RIAA), which he helped found, and a portfolio of built and unbuilt projects. These include RI’s first designs for an Art Museum, proposed in 1853 a full 40 years before the RISD, Museum of Art was opened.  

Also of historical and aesthetic significance is Tefft's visionary proposal for a Merchant’s Exchange to be constructed next to the downtown Arcade. These original Tefft watercolors and drawings are on view at the Providence Athenaeum until September 23, 2010. The exhibition is free and open to the public.

Thomas Tefft’s visionary Merchant’s Exchange Building of 1856 was planned for a triangular site adjacent to the Arcade (1828) in downtown Providence. Accompanying drawings loaned from the Brown University Archives reveal how Tefft was planning to relate America’s first enclosed shopping mall to this planned first RI brokerage house and showcase for RI design and industry.

One of the clients driving this project was the Scotsman Alexander Duncan who is better known as the principal in the major NYC banking firm, Duncan, Sherman, & Co. (where the young J.P. Morgan started work). Duncan’s banking partner, Watts Sherman, is familiar to us in RI for his son and daughter-in-law’s significant William Watts Sherman House by H.H. Richardson, now owned by Salve Regina University in Newport, RI. Looking at the 1850s gives new insights into the beginnings of Gilded Age Newport.

Particular attention has been paid in this exhibition to Tefft’s planned extension of the east side of the Arcade to relate it to the proposed Merchant’s Exchange. This is developed further in my scholarship on this project. But note that Alexander Duncan had inherited the east side of the Arcade, through his wife, from the original Arcade developer, Cyrus Butler. Attention to Tefft’s drawings reveals how circulation would move from the Arcade to the Westminster St. entrance. Upon entering the Exchange rotunda, one would be directly facing the bank of stores on Alexander Duncan’s part of the Turk’s Head site property.

Tefft nearly succeeded in actualizing the Merchant’s Exchange project and achieving the goals of the RIAA to found a design school and museum in RI. But these dreams were cut short in part by the Panic of 1857. The rise and fall of Tefft’s 1856 project for a Merchant’s Exchange building should be understood within the context of optimism and prosperity suddenly disrupted by the destructive dislocations of banking failures and general economic collapse. Tefft’s talent and energy left, and this moment of synergy took decades to recover.

Tefft’s Merchant’s Exchange is often described as visionary architecture and among the most astonishing building proposals of the nineteenth century. Even more important to recognize is how close it came to being realized in RI. Formal precedents have been identified, such as John B. Bunting’s Coal Exchange (London, 1847), or the vast cast-iron circular amphitheater proposed for the temporary 1853 Crystal Palace exhibition building in NYC by John Bogardus (who made the cast zinc Benjamin Franklin statue for the Franklin Lyceum) and his partner, Hamilton Hoppin from Newport. But Tefft wrote in the Crayon about what he felt were the limits of metal and glass for permanent structures. Historian Jutta Bruhn has correctly noted that for the Providence Merchant’s Exchange “Tefft’s choice was for a circular building in stone, brick, and cast iron [and] was intended to convey the aesthetic and structural solidity of an ancient Roman amphitheater” (Curran, 125).

The Merchant’s Exchange is Tefft’s last commercial project and his third design for the historic commercial “Sign of the Turk’s Head” area of Providence on the west side of the Weybosset Bridge. In 1855 Tefft lost the commission for the Custom House (24Weybosset St.) to Ammi B. Young, the first supervising architect of the Federal Treasury Department. But in March and April 1856, Tefft returned to design for this urban core anchored by the Arcade. On March 27, 1856 Tefft completed drawings for his circular Merchant’s Exchange on the difficult triangular site formed at the joining of Weybosset and Westminster St. -  with the Arcade as a backdrop and the Custom House under construction across the street. Also under construction in 1856 was Tefft’s second Howard Hall, a little further down Westminster block, at the corner of Dorrance. And from the Turk’s Head site, views would have been possible through the many side streets connecting Westminster St. to Exchange Place (now Fulton St.), providing glimpses of Tefft’s Union Depot, then situated on what is now Kennedy Plaza. Just a few weeks after completing the design for the Merchant’s Exchange, Tefft designed the Bank of North America at 50 Weybosset St., still standing opposite the Arcade.

In 2010, many of the buildings on the Turk’s Head site adjacent to the Arcade have been demolished, allowing a unique opportunity to visualize the developing landscape that Tefft saw. (See aerial Bing Map below.)  Especially interesting is Tefft’s drawing that shows how concerned Tefft was to build transitions between the Arcade and the Merchant’s Exchange Building by providing a major new emphasis on the Arcade’s side entrance, and the extension of transitional spaces for each shop forming a denser urban fabric. I will lead a tour to this area on Gallery Night, September 16, 2010 to discuss this further on the site.

This Bing map shows the current state of the historic Turk's Head site between the Weybosset and Westminster Streets in downtown Providence. In 2010 the Arcade is boarded up and the developers who tore down the infill buildings have retracted plans for a hotel.  RI architectural historian Mack Woodward calls the Arcade an early commercial building with "no peer in the nation" and "one of the finest Greek Revival monuments in this country." (Providence, 238)

© Nancy Austin, 2010
Newport, RI

Panoramic Photograph of the Coliseum in Rome, c. 1859-60 by Tommaso Cuccioni (1790-1864)

Five-Foot  Photograph of the Coliseum in Rome, attributed to architectural photographer Tommaso Cuccioni (1790-1864). Documented in the collection of the Providence Athenaeum 1860

Tommaso Cuccioni is an important early architectural photographer working in Rome and noted for his very large format photographs.

I have based my Cuccioni attribution of the Athenaeum’s Coliseum photograph on information such as that included below, particularly noting the size of the Cuccioni photographs exhibited in Paris in 1859 at the important early French Photographic Society (FPS) exhibition held alongside the 1859 Salon, the description of his work included in a long review in the prestigious 1859 Gazette des Beaux-Arts (exhibited here) and also the descriptions of Cuccioni’s large-format photographs in the 1858 and 1864 Murray’s Handbook of Rome. (1858 exhibited here.)

The Photography Conservator, Paul Messier, who is working with the Athenaeum on a plan for preservation, estimates that as few as twenty of these prints might have been made. It appears likely this is the only large-format Cuccioni surviving from the 1859-60. 

The Coliseum is constructed of three prints expertly seamed. The negative process is either a paper negative or an early wet-plate collodian. The printing process is either a late salted paper print where the silver is embedded in the paper, or an early albumen print where the silver sits above the paper. Mr. Messier speculated that more precious metals than silver might have been used to account for the warmth of the coloration. This kind of scan testing is also possible during treatment. A high quality reproduction photograph would also be taken at that time.

The donor: It is relevant to consider the purchaser/donor. Albert Jones was a young expatriate sculpture critic for the New York Times who likely bought the Coliseum photograph from Cuccioni. Jones had been in Italy since 1854 and would have known Cuccioni from the circle of artists who gathered at the Caffe Greco in Rome. Throughout 1859, Jones was in Rome and Florence with his close friend from Providence, Thomas Tefft, who was on a Grand Tour planned for the three years from Dec. 1856 to Dec. 1859. Not nationally known today, Tefft was antebellum Rhode Island’s most beloved and precocious young architect from whom much was expected. In 1857, at age 31, Tefft was one of the few architects invited to join the just-formed AIA (American Institute of Architects) in New York. It is reasonable to assume that this ambitious, exuberant young architect would seek out Rome’s most remarkable architectural photographer. But Tefft died unexpectedly on December 11, 1859 at the home of the sculptor Hiram Powers, attended to by Albert Jones. Tefft’s body was buried, then exhumed and shipped back to RI in Feb 1860, possibly with the Coliseum photograph.

This Athenaeum exhibition (Sept 1-23) develops the iconography of the Coliseum photograph within the context of the developing art world in 1850s Providence. Both Tefft (died 1859) and Jones (died 1887) left the majority of their estates to the development of art culture in Rhode Island, based on their shared efforts founding the Rhode Island Art Association (RIAA) in Providence in the early 1850s. It is within this context that we should consider the Athenaeum photograph, which was most likely purchased, or a gift, sometime from 1859-spring 1860.  It was not sent back as merely a souvenir, or an archeological document. Its valence is that of photography as a new art media. The subject matter of the Coliseum, I argue, is a reference to Tefft’s final projects in Rhode Island that tried (unsuccessfully) to mediate the arena of culture and the tensions between culture, commerce, and the state.

Large-format exhibited in Paris 1859: In 1859 Tommaso Cuccioni exhibited large views of Rome at the important "Exposition de la Societé Francaise de la Photographie" in Paris (1859). One of these photographs was 160 x 68 cm requiring three plates of 55 x 70cm each. Note this is almost exactly the size of the Athenaeum Coliseum print, which is also made of three plates and arrived in Providence, RI from Rome by October 1, 1860.

Exhibited Paris: 160 x 68cm
Coliseum visible: 150 x 68.6
Coliseum framed: 169 x 86cm

Cuccioni also exhibited his large-format photographs at Expositions in London, Edinburgh, Dublin, and Paris (1855, 1859).

Cuccioni’s work is praised in both the 1858 Handbook to Rome exhibited and the next edition published the year of his death. In 1864, the British guidebook noted: “Cuccioni’s photographs are excellent, and the large ones of the Coliseum … are unique for their size and execution.”

Also: “Cuccioni’s magnificent views of the Forum, St. Peter’s, the Castle of St. Angelo, and the Coliseum, in 2 and 3 pieces which join perfectly, [are available at his shop near the Spanish Steps for the price of] from 5 to 10 scudi.” 

[A Handbook of Rome and Its Environs, 8th ed. (London: John A, Murray, 1864: Section 21.]

Gazette des Beaux-Arts (1859)
This important French art journal reviewed Cuccioni’s large-format  photographs at the 1859 SFP exhibition of photography held in Paris alongside the 1859 Salon.

“The huge photographs taken in Rome by M. Cuccioni, representing the views of the Coliseum and the Forum, the Laocoon, and the Arch of Constantine, are as significant in their scale and their success as in the grandeur of the memories they arouse.  We remained long in thought before the calm and sober aspect of the last one.  Roman art appears in these half-gnawed bas-reliefs, with its searching of physiognomy and its knowledge of historical anecdote.  You would think you were seeing a worn old print of the arch of Trajan, or of Marc Antony.  The View of the Forum, whose three joined parts form a whole of 1 meter 60 centimeters in length by 68 centimeters in height, presented—in taking the picture and in joining the proofs—difficulties which have been overcome with the greatest happiness.”
[Translation courtesy of Providence Athenaeum Trustee, Stephen Coon, Ph.D.]

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Was Tefft coming back?

Thomas Alexander Tefft
RI's first AIA Architect
(3 Aug 1826 Richmond, RI - 11 Dec 1859 Florence, Italy)

The 11-year architecture career of RI native Thomas Tefft was brief indeed, from 1845 – 1856, with a certain beginning and a legacy that continues to challenge Rhode Island: Why not?


The one-room school house at Quarrelsome Corners in rural Richmond, RI. This is where Tefft was teaching school when Henry Barnard invited him to Providence to apprentice with one of the architects of the Arcade, James Bucklin. Photograph by permission of the Richmond Historical Society.

In the summer of 1845 the nineteen-year old was “discovered” teaching in a one-room schoolhouse at Quarrelsome Corners near the current Washington County Fair Ground and brought to Providence to apprentice as an architect in the office of James Bucklin, an architect of the 1828 Westminster St Arcade. Almost immediately, Tefft made a mark with a series of precociously accomplished buildings, including the Providence Union Depot (1847-48), which was voted in 1885 by architects of the American Institute of Architects as still one of the 20 best buildings in the United States. (Tefft’s Union Depot burned in 1896.)  

Thomas Tefft designed the Providence Union Depot in 1847 when he was 21. Voted by architects as one of the 20 best buildings in the United States in 1885, it burned in 1896.

From 1847-1851, Tefft worked to pay his way through Brown University, graduating with the aid of Brown’s  “New System”, or Latin-free curriculum, which was introduced in 1850 specifically to help a self-made Rhode Islander like Tefft achieve a college degree. Now known as RI’s first college-educated architect, Tefft’s career as an architect and founder of the Rhode Island Art Association paralleled a period of prosperity that abruptly ended in the summer of 1856 with a NYC banking failure, the subsequent run on banks in October 1856, and the nationwide Panic of 1857 in which the stock market lost almost two-thirds of its value. Tefft used this unpromising economic environment to embark on his first trip to Europe. In December 1856, having recently turned 30, Tefft left RI.  The only drawings on the boards were for Vassar College, the hoped-for first woman’s college in America. Tefft had completed preliminary designs for Vassar in May 1856, but the project appears to have been put on hold by the end that year. As it turned out, Vassar was not founded until 1861.

Tefft's proposal for a Merchant's Exchange next to the Arcade (on the historic "Turk's Head" site where Westminster and Weybosset Streets join) was Tefft's last commercial design before he left for Europe in Dec 1856 at the age of 30. It is still considered one of the most daring and visionary buildings of the nineteenth century that almost got built. Exhibited by permission of Brown University Archives.

In Europe in 1857, in the midst of an economic crisis with many parallels to 2010, Tefft first introduced himself as a visiting American architect with the prestige of membership in the newly founded American Institute of Architects. But what really set Tefft apart was the confidence with which he agitated the heads of state for a monetary gold standard and the rational merits of a universal currency that would provide a more level playing field in the global arena of capitalism. In 1858, Tefft published his ideas as Universal Currency: a Plan for Obtaining a Common Currency in France, England, and America.

By January 1859, the economic situation in RI had recovered enough that Tefft was appointed the first RI Commissioner on Industrial Education, with the brief to visit design schools in Europe and return home as planned to help RI found an art museum and take the lead nationally in design education.  However, at the end of this planned 3-yr Grand Tour (from Dec 13, 1856 to Dec 1859) - his visit ambiguously changing into a prolonged expatriate possibility - Tefft died of fever in Florence at the age of 33.

Tefft had settled in Rome and then Florence after Nov 1858, and before his unexpected death Dec 11, 1859 he had just taken out a two-month membership at a library in Florence, which his friend Albert Jones belonged to. Can we be so sure Tefft was coming back to RI?  At the first memorial service for Tefft in RI in Jan 1860, a poet alluded to this possibility that RI had lost its native talent:

Oh Friends! we sent thee forth to foreign lands, 
And with our parting clasp of thy warm hands, 
Laid on their palms sweet wishes and commands: 

That though should'st haste to reap in hoary fields,
The precious fruit that fertile Europe yields 
To every arm, which Art’s bright sickle wields.

“We charged thee, O, dear friend – and thou the while
At what seemed causeless care in us, dids’t smile
To let no foreign home thy choice beguile:

But to be true to this new home of Art,
Where yet ten thousand bright ideals shall start.
To glowing life, from teeming brain and heart!

And thou did’st gaily vow, yet gravely mean,
In Eastern lands Art’s golden lore to glean,
To go and come, with three years’ lapse between. (…)

The third year speeds apace; and ere its sun
The Zodiac’s round its glittering wheels have run,
Thy broken vow shall yet, alas! be done.

Thou wilt come back, O friend! With empty hands,
Nor bring again, from treacherous foreign lands,
The will to do our wishes and commands.

Tefft was buried Dec 13, 1859 at the so-called English Cemetery in the middle of Florence, alongside the Hiram Power children and a veritable who's who of American expatriate artists and poets.

Albert Jones and the expatriate American sculptor, Hiram Powers, buried Thomas Alexander Tefft Dec 13, 1859 at the English Cemetery in Florence. But Tefft’s body was disinterred in Feb 1860 and shipped back to RI.  Possibly this shipment included the Coliseum photograph as a memorial from his close friend, the Benefit St. expatriate, Albert J. Jones, who had “the melancholy privilege to watch at [Tefft’s] bed side, and to close his eyes in the sleep that on earth knows no waking”. 

After Tefft's death, expatriate Albert Jones sent this five foot wide photograph of the Coliseum back to the Athenaeum. Jones and Tefft had been in Rome or Florence since at least Dec 1858, and likely new Cuccioni, one of the most important architectural photographers working in Italy

A much-loved young man, Tefft’s death continued to be sharply mourned. Alexis Caswell, a Brown professor and later sixth President of Brown, confessed the need to  go to Florence "to visit the chamber where [Tefft] had expired", as "a tribute due [Tefft's] memory, as well as a melancholy satisfaction to myself." When Caswell returned from that trip to Italy in 1861, he donated to the Providence Athenaeum a copy of the 44’ tall solitary Column of Phocas memorialized by Byron. (Exhibited with the other two sets of Corinthian columns from the Forum in Rome, on the table to the right). 

A portrait bust of Albert Jones is in front of the solitary Column of Phocas that Brown Professor Alexis Caldwell sent back from Rome in 1861.

The question of who would get to keep Tefft's  personal belongings – his cape, a box of shells, his scarf and gloves - triggered a lawsuit between his South County RI farming family and the older Providence architect, Bucklin, to whom Tefft had first been apprenticed.  

Tefft had, in a sense, three gravesites: one in Florence, and then two in RI. In May 1860 Thomas Tefft was re-buried in Swan Point Cemetery - a landscape he helped lay out - in a funerary monument of his own design. He is buried next to the James Bucklin, the architect of the Arcade.  A marker to Tefft's memory also rises in the Tefft family plot next to the First Richmond Six Principle Baptist Church in rural Wood River Junction, RI.

Tefft is the subject of one of only three monographs written about an architect in the nineteenth century.

A 1951 Providence Journal article relays the chance story of how Tefft's portfolio of drawings had recently been saved and donated to Brown.

© Nancy Austin, 2010
Newport, RI