A Fertile Fellowship: The Rich History of the Salmagundi Club
By Anne Cohen DePietro
The club was born during a unique phase in New York's cultural history, around the middle years of the nineteenth century, when the city began to assume a leadership position as an economic and artistic capitol. Libraries, performing arts centers, and museums were founded with the intent of educating the local populace. Organizations that offered opportunities for artists to work, exhibit, and socialize, began to flourish as well. The National Academy of Design had been established in 1826, the Century Association in 1847, and the Tile Club in 1876. In fact, many Salmagundians, including Edwin Blashfield, William Merritt Chase, Thomas Moran, and Elihu Vedder, were also Centurions or Tile Club members. It is worth noting that, in 1878, Salmagundians were closely involved in the defection of a group of young artists from the staid National Academy of Design to form the Art Students League, and that many of the new League's instructors, including Chase, Walter Shirlaw, and J. Scott Hartley, were club members. Lay members as well as practicing visual artists were welcome at the Salmagundi, and the membership swelled to include John Philip Sousa and Stanford White as well as pillars of society such as Otto Kahn and Robert Lehman.
Yet the Salmagundi began as a sketch club, and it became the first professional artist-run organization to hold an exhibition devoted exclusively to drawings and etchings. Held from 1878 to 1887, at various Greenwich Village locations while the club led its nomadic existence, these Black and White Exhibitions earned it a national reputation. Publishers and artists alike submitted work for consideration, and while the Salmagundi was still a men's club (only opening to women in 1973), works by women were accepted and praised. The exhibitions remained popular until printing processes had advanced to the point where it was cheaper to buy reproductions of paintings than original drawings. Over 200 works were included in the first such juried show and sale, and a portion of the proceeds was allocated toward covering operating and social expenses of the lively fellowship.
The celebrated library was founded after the Salmagundi began renting the former studio and home of sculptor John Rogers in 1895. It became (and remains) famous for its wealth of material on aspects of American art and for its exceptional collection of books on costume, an invaluable resource for the membership. One of the club's most unique, and successful, fundraising schemes was established to raise funds for the library. Each year, members decorated a maximum of twenty-four mugs, which were then fired by the Volkmar Pottery and sold at a dinner-auction. The happy consequences far exceeded initial expectations, with mugs routinely fetching prices in the range of several hundred dollars, and the custom continued until 1923. Many of those sold for record-breaking prices have found their way back into the library collection. By all accounts, auctions (as well as other social occasions) at the club appear to have been riotous affairs, with already-sold items often being turned in a second time for re-sale.
This modus operandi continued, and a share from every sale or auction went to the benefit of the club. The Tonalist painter Bruce Crane served for a time as club auctioneer. Other popular vehicles for exhibitions and fundraisers evolved. Annual Thumb-Box exhibitions were instituted, named for the small portable painters' boxes, first popular in the late nineteenth century, containing artists' colors and canvas or board. Many paintings submitted were little gems, deftly painted with the spontaneous brushstrokes characteristic of on-site sketches. The tradition continues, work still limited to a maximum size of 16 x 20", although expanded in media to include photographs as well.
Beginning with the move to the Rogers Studio, the Salmagundi became a dining club, and five functions were scheduled annually, one to acknowledge the laurel-crowned winner of the Samuel T. Show Purchase Prize and another honoring an American artist. Edwin Austin Abbey, Louis C. Tiffany, and J. Alden Weir were among those so recognized. Distinctive invitations were designed for each event. For special occasions, the walls of the dining room were draped with brown paper, to be painted by the members. Elaborate decorations were installed, one time even including a pond, and it appears that the wine flowed freely in convivial and characteristically bohemian gatherings. A costume dinner, into which the members seemed to have thrown themselves with creativity and abandon, was finally phased out.
By the first years of the twentieth century, with the exception of the more avant-garde painters, anyone of importance was a member. Gifford Beal and Ralph Blakelock, William Hart and Childe Hassam, Ernest Lawson and John LaFarge, Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Louis Comfort Tiffany -- all belonged to this unique fellowship. In 1917, the Salmagundi had the opportunity to purchase a majestic brownstone at 47 Fifth Avenue. Over $46,000 was raised between pledges made by lay members and a three-day painting auction, and the association finally acquired its own home, replete with two ghosts.
The Salmagundi continued for many years at the hub of artistic activity in the Village, falling out of favor only in the 1940s and '50s during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism. Yet it persevered, continuing to judge art by standards felt to be sound and sincere, and working to foster public understanding and appreciation of art. Today, an active exhibitions schedule remains in effect, with member and juried shows, classes, and a host of other opportunities. A life sketching group meets weekly, lecture-demonstrations are held, and a scholarship program is maintained. Membership is national in scope. As in years past, the club provides abundant opportunity for professional growth, creative endeavor, and camaraderie. To this day, as it celebrates its 125th anniversary, the Salmagundi Club remains a vital force in American art, even as its majestic headquarters testifies to its rich history.
NOTE: The author is grateful to Alexander Katlan, long-time Salmagundian and consulting paintings conservator of the Heckscher Museum of Art, for generously sharing his research on the club.
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