What Can We Tell You About A Painting You Have?

Frequently Asked Questions: Part Three

One of our most common phone queries is, "I found a painting at a yard sale; can you tell me something about the artist?" We usually can, even if it’s just a basic biography. An excellent starting point for research on an individual artist is Who Was Who in American Art, edited by Peter Hastings Falk. Compiled from the original 30 volumes of the American Art Annual, which was published from 1898 to 1933, it is especially valuable because the information in the Art Annuals was provided by the artists themselves. This artist index was recently republished in 1999 in three large volumes, making it one of the most comprehensive listings of American artists.

Another readily used source is Mantle Fielding’s Dictionary of American Painters, Sculptors and Engravers. First published in 1926, Mantle Fielding offers a quick sketch of an artist, including birth and death dates, and place of study.

Although it is much less comprehensive, American Art Analog is a helpful reference because in addition to a more lengthy biography, each of the 800+ entries usually includes a reproduction of the artist’s work.

We also consult specialized reference books such as Dorothy E. R. Brewington’s Dictionary of Marine Artists. If we don’t know an artist’s name but he/she signed with a monogram we might consult the Dictionary of Signatures and Monograms of American Artists by Peter Hastings Falk.

If an artist is from the Boston area we frequently turn to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston catalogue The Bostonians: Painters of an Elegant Age, 1870 - 1930. Published in 1986, the excellent biographies compiled by Erica E. Hirshler provide information on schools, studios, residences, and memberships, as well as any association with the Museum School. William H. Gerdts’ three-volume Art Across America: Two Centuries of Regional Painting 1710 - 1920, is a wonderful compendium of information on painters from around the country.

We frequently get requests for material on Hudson River School artists. The biographies in the 1987 Metropolitan Museum of Art catalogue, American Paradise: the World of the Hudson River School are succinct and especially well written.

We often refer callers to the Fine Arts department of the Boston Public Library, whose librarians are among the most knowledgeable in the country. We usually suggest a visit to the library since their holdings include one of the most comprehensive art libraries in the United States. In addition to thousands of books and periodicals, the Fine Arts department has extensive Artist’s Clipping Files. These files contain numerous reproductions, news clippings, and articles filed by artist. You can search the library’s database online at www.bpl.org.

Another frequent referral is to the Archives of American Art, a division of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. The Archives has branches around the country; their collection is made up of primary source material on artists, museums, commercial galleries, and private collectors. An extremely large database for the Smithsonian Institution Research Information System is available online at http://www.siris.si.edu, from which you can search the Art inventories.

Another useful source for researchers is the Inventory of American Paintings Executed Before 1914. Begun in 1970, this national census of all the paintings in America is a database maintained by the Smithsonian American Art Museum. This entire database can be accessed online at http://americanart.si.edu.

For scholars seeking more extensive knowledge on a lesser-known artist, Vose Galleries can sometimes provide further information, provided that the request is in writing, and only if the sources above have been exhausted.

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