Sunday, September 12, 2010

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

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