Editor's note: The following essay is reprinted with permission of the author and the Heckscher Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay please contact the Heckscher Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:
A Fertile Fellowship: The Rich History of the Salmagundi Club
By Anne Cohen DePietro
To pass through the portals of the Salmagundi Club is to experience more than a century of American art history in an atmosphere permeated with warmth, creativity, and camaraderie. Situated in one of the last remaining townhouses on lower Fifth Avenue, the club has offered safe haven, fellowship, and opportunity to a membership that over the years has virtually served as a roster of the most distinguished names in American art. The entrance hall, flanked on either side by the palettes of George Inness and John Francis Murphy, leads to a grand staircase lined with portraits of past presidents. The elegant double parlors, separated by pilasters and Corinthian columns supporting paired elliptical arches, are remarkably unchanged since the landmark townhouse was constructed in 1854. The walls are filled with paintings by past and current members of this extraordinary organization.
Ascending to the second floor library, one is struck by the golden glow of this warm, inviting room with comfortable chairs, redolent of decades of pipes and cigars smoked by the marble fireplace. Above tall oak cabinets are close to one hundred artists' palettes, the largest collection in public or private hands, formed by the painter Harry Watrous. The cabinets themselves are laden with mugs decorated by artist-members and sold at fundraisers, as well as a wealth of reference material dealing with the history of art and costume, and archives documenting the lively social history of the Salmagundi Club itself.
The origins of the club, however, lie not in this stately townhouse, but in the plaster dust-filled studio of sculptor J. Scott Hartley on Broadway, at the eastern edge of Greenwich Village, where in 1871 a group of artists (students at the National Academy of Design) and their friends began to gather on Saturday evenings on a weekly basis. A sketching session based upon a chosen theme such as Solitude began the evening, which progressed on to critiques of work, refreshments, boxing matches and general merriment. First known as the New York Sketch Class, the club moved from one temporary headquarters to the next, growing rapidly; its name was formally changed to The Salmagundi Sketch Club in January, 1877. The charter members of the renamed club included, among others, George Inness, Jr.; John Francis Murphy; John Wells Champney; and both J. Scott and Joseph Hartley.
The term salmagundi, culinary in origin, was first used with reference to a stew or ragout in Jacobean England; and in colonial America described a salad composed of various ingredients. The use of the term that probably has most significance to the club itself was that made by Washington Irving who, in collaboration with William and James K. Pauling, produced a series of essays, the Salmagundi Papers (1807-08) or Whim-whams and Opinions if Launcelot Longstaff, Esq. and others. The papers gently poked fun at the quirks and mores of nineteenth century fashionable society, and it is this playful sense that may have appealed to the members of the infant organization. That the artists frequently were said to have dined upon salmagundi stew at the home of Alice Don Levy may also have been a contributing factor. Culinary associations continued to evolve; club members enjoyed a house beverage, also known as salmagundi, a mix of chocolate and coffee.
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