Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on February 8, 2006 with the permission of The Florence Griswold Museum. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or wish to obtain a copy of the catalogue from which it is excerpted, please contact The Florence Griswold Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:


A Noble Tradition: American Paintings from the National Arts Club

by Carol Lowrey



Located in the former residence of Governor Samuel J. Tilden, a National Historic Landmark building on Gramercy Park in New York City, The National Arts Club has been in the forefront of Manhattan's artistic and cultural life since the early years of this century. Founded in 1898 by Charles de Kay (1848-1935), the influential art and literary critic for the New York Times, The National Arts Club was one of the most innovative arts organizations of its day. Inspired by the spirit of cultural nationalism that emerged during the late nineteenth century, De Kay founded the club to foster the mutual acquaintance of "art lovers and art workers" in the United States with the intention of inducing collectors who bought foreign work to patronize native artists.[1]

In addition to providing a common meeting ground for artist and connoisseur, De Kay's goals also included stimulating public interest in the arts -- not just painting and sculpture, but applied and industrial art as well as civic art and architecture -- through exhibitions and publications. Outlining the project to an audience at the Yale Club in 1898, De Kay noted that the clubhouse would have a gallery large enough to exhibit private collections and, to counteract the restrictive exhibition policies of many of New York's professional art organizations, would feature "such special exhibitions as the existing art societies of the city do not show."[2] He went on, stating that through its "national scope" and "liberal spirit," the club would "exert a far reaching influence for good on art in the United States and help to make the excellence of American work felt by the government and the people."[3] Accordingly, membership would be open to both residents and non-residents of New York and offered to "art lovers and artists of both sexes."[4]

Working with an organizing committee made up of civic leaders and important figures in the art world, De Kay circulated a letter to collectors, artists, museum officials, dealers, writers, editors, and businessmen throughout the United States, successfully enrolling over one thousand charter members, among them such prominent art patrons as Benjamin Altman, Samuel P. Avery and Henry Clay Frick.[5]

During De Kay's tenure as secretary and managing director (1899-1904), the club hosted a wide variety of exhibitions ranging from stained glass, jewelry and art pottery to Japanese prints, American pastels and the annual exhibitions of the Woman's Art Club. The club also sponsored American Pictorial Photographs, the first exhibition of Alfred Stieglitz's Photo-Secession (1902), as well as a controversial display of sculpture by Rodin (1903) and in 1904, a loan exhibition of paintings by Arthur B. Davies, William Glackens, Robert Henri, George Luks, Maurice Prendergast and John Sloan.


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