T H E A L L E G O R Y I N T H E L I B R A R Y : T H E S A L M A G U N D I C L U B C O M M I S S I O N
Bold Brush, blog
By Abigail Lashbrook
September 6, 2021
Sponsored by Chelsea Classical Studio
To step inside the double doors of the Salmagundi Club library is to step back in time; you can imagine the library of classic mystery fiction looking like this. The floor-to-ceiling shelves of glossy oak are lined with cloth-bound volumes in red, green, and blue, as well as the rich tones of genuine leather. There are dignified bronze statues sitting in the corners and a tinted reproduction Tiffany lamp on the broad table stretching down the center. Essentially a time capsule, this library has not been significantly altered since it was established in this room in 1917. In addition to its beauty, this library is one-of-a-kind for its historical value; it has one of the largest collections of antique costume design in the country, a collection of famous American artists’ palettes from the past hundred years, a rare oversized folio collection, and, being organized pre-Dewey Decimal System, a custom filing system to which a hand-drawn ‘map’ of the library holds the key.
Don’t be deceived, however, by the weighty atmosphere of old books and fine leather; this venerable library is at the heart of a vibrant contemporary artists’ club. Dating back to 1871, from that day to this the Salmagundi Club has always had an active body of working artists at its core, as well as a contingent of ‘lay’ or non-artist members, who share in common with the artist members an enthusiasm for the arts.
The library has played a key role in the events of the club since it was originally conceived in 1891 for the purpose of collecting reference for art projects. Many of the original members of the Salmagundi Club were illustrators who worked for the major New York magazines and papers such as Harper’s Weekly, Scribners’, and The Saturday Evening Post and they might be called upon to illustrate practically any subject at short notice, so a library such as this one was essential for providing the visual resources required for interest and accuracy. Although focused on art, the volumes range over a wide variety of ground, from classic novels to subjects such as whist or cattle-farming: “Books on art subjects, or valuable for their illustrations, are preferred; but all good literature is acceptable,” according to a circular sent out to club members of the time to solicit book donations. In addition to donating books, the Salmagundi members kept scrapbooks, assembled from fashion plates and magazine cuttings, that were organized according to subject and provided another significant source of reference material. Unique to this club, these scrapbooks have been bound in leather and are a treasured part of the club’s history. Many of them contain notes and autographs from the now-famous artists who assembled them. It was also a tradition to paste a bookplate into the front of each volume donated to the library, with the name of the donor inscribed upon it. Browsing the books becomes a treasure hunt for the art-history buff, as you never know what signature you’re going to stumble upon.
By 1917, when the Salmagundi Club moved into its current home in a brownstone on 5th Avenue, the collection was firmly established. There have been later additions, but the majority of the books predate 1930, meaning that most of these books are now quite fragile. For the past two years the library has been in an ongoing restoration project; the Library Committee’s chairman is the distinguished New York City painting conservator Alex Katlan, who through his professional career has a keen awareness of the requirements and necessities of conservation. He has overseen the hiring of three professional book conservators to begin the restoration process for some of the especially valuable and one-of-a-kind volumes in the collection. In addition to restoring books, the Library Committee has two other projects in the works for beautifying the library. The first, a long-cherished idea of Alex’s that is finally coming to fruition, is the installation of two leaded-glass windows with stained glass accents in the back of the library where right now two plain clouded-glass windows reside. In the otherwise classic library, the industrial look of these windows has long felt out of place, and the library committee is thrilled to finally be installing handcrafted windows that will complement the rest of the room. The final addition to the library is also in keeping with the past history and current role of the library in the club’s goal of promoting representative art in New York City: complementary paintings of allegorical figures, to be painted on two panels and installed on the interior library doors. They have been commissioned to commemorate the 150th birthday of the club, coming up in November 2021, and, being the first large-scale commission by the Salmagundi Club in over 100 years, occasioned great excitement throughout the club when it was announced this past February. The Library committee decided to open the commission in the form of a competition, open to all professional artist members of the club, with the winning design to be purchased for the library.
The Salmagundi Club has always been at the center of the realist art scene in New York City, with significant members reading like a who’s who in the history of representative American art: George Inness Jr, Howard Pyle, Emil Carlsen, Edwin Austin Abbey, Thomas Moran, William Merritt Chase, Childe Hassam, Norman Rockwell, Richard Schmid, Max Ginsburg, David Leffel, Patricia Watwood, Jacob Collins, Juliette Aristides. With this piece the Library Committee wanted to celebrate that heritage, so they chose a theme that has long been a tradition in the great public art projects of western art: allegorical figures on themes represented by the club and the library. The specific themes were up to the choice of the artist, but it’s not surprising, being an art library, that all of the subjects chosen by the artists revolved around classical virtues such as beauty, knowledge, wisdom, and truth. The winning entry, by artist Noah Buchanan, celebrates four ideals: Light, Visual Perception, Intelligence, and Education. Each concept is illustrated by a figure, in the classical tradition. Buchanan’s color study for the two panels is worked in a harmonious scheme of blues, ochres, and umbers with accents of red that will complement the rich wood interior of the library. Considering that these paintings are going to live in a room dedicated to art books, it’s fitting that Buchanan pulled his inspiration for the symbolism from historical art sources such as the classic 17th century text Iconologia by Cesare Ripa. He is currently working on the final paintings, which will be installed in November and unveiled at the annual Library Dinner.
Noah Buchanan, Library Study 1, 2021
The Library Door commission, though the first commission to be actually installed in the library, is not the first piece of art to be commissioned by it; the Salmagundi Club bookplate, which you will see pasted in the front of most of the books in the collection, was the result of a competition back in 1898. Like the recent commission, it was presented as a competition, with a prize of 60 dollars for the winning design. William Henry Shelton, a former club historian, describes the event: “On April 1, 1898, a committee was appointed to secure a book-plate for the library, which resulted in what was announced as the “Ex-Libris Dinner” and which was really the first of the Annual Library Dinners. It was known as “Book-Plate Night.”… Mr. Clarkson Cowl offered a prize of sixty dollars for the best design for a book-plate. The prize was awarded to the pen-drawing of George Elmer Browne, which was reproduced in facsimile and printed on thin Japanese paper and is still in use as the bookplate of the Salmagundi Club.” It is this elegant art-nouveau bookplate, incorporating the club’s distinctive logo, that you will still see pasted on the inside of all the club volumes.
And then there are the mugs: on display in the library you will see a collection of blue-and-white mugs, each one decorated in a highly individual style. Not strictly commissioned, the mug collection started as a yearly fundraiser to raise money for the running and acquisitions of the library. This fundraiser became a major event and part of the annual Library Dinner festivities, as well as an example of the general creativity and bonhomie of the Salmagundi Club. When the library was first started and funds were needed to run it, they came up with the idea of auctioning off mugs, thrown by Brooklyn-based Volkmar pottery and hand-decorated by twenty-four of their best artists. The resulting mugs, in Delftware blue, would be offered up for auction at a library dinner, all funds resulting to go to the library. The first event was such a success that it became a tradition, and each year from 1899 to 1924 twenty-four mugs would be decorated and sold, with friendly competition to see which of the donors could outbid the others, resulting in record prices. In 1917 J. Sanford Saltus paid one thousand and one dollars for a mug, which he promptly donated back to the library. That was another tradition that grew out of these dinners – that of the winning purchaser donating the mug back to the library, with the result that today the Club has approximately eighty of these mugs, illustrated by famous names like Edwin Austin Abbey, Howard Pyle, and Walter Granville-Smith.
Library mugs: Walter Granville-Smith, George Herbert McCord, George Elmer Browne
Although the mug auctions came to an end in 1924, the Library Dinners did not, and they continue to be a significant yearly event for members of the club. This November’s Library Dinner, being the official celebration of the Club’s 150th anniversary and featuring the unveiling of the new door panels, will be a special celebration of the library and its artists and the role both play in the New York art world. As part of this celebration, when the new library door paintings are unveiled there will also be an exhibition of Noah Buchanan’s preparatory drawings and studies in the library, and, in the club’s pool library, an exhibition of the drawings and color studies from the other contestants who took part in the competition. A finished work from each artist will be displayed along with their studies, so that the viewer can imagine what the study would look like as a finished work. These exhibitions will offer the public with a rare opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes view of the process for a commissioned piece, from not just one artist but many. The fact that the competition allowed so much latitude for individual interpretation adds to the interest, as each artist who participated chose different subjects and methods, and the contrast and comparison of each artist’s thought is fascinating.
The exhibition of sketches and color studies, titled Allegory Today: the library commission, will be free and open to the public in the pool library during the Salmagundi Club exhibition hours, 1:00-6:00 pm Monday-Friday and 1-5 pm on weekends, November 8-19, 2021. The works in this exhibition will be for sale by artist.
The exhibit Noah Buchanan: library studies, hosted upstairs in the library, will be free and open to the public during the same hours October 17-November 19, 2021. These drawings have been donated to the club by Buchanan and are now in the permanent collection.
The 2021 Library Dinner is a ticketed event, open only to Salmagundi Club members, and will be hosted on November 17, 2021 in the dinner and bar room, with profits to go to the Library fund. The dinner is limited to 80 participants; tickets are available here.
Noah Buchanan, Library Study 10, 2021