Selections from the National Gallery of Art Library
February 5–July 24, 2011
This exhibition is no longer on view at the National Gallery. Please follow the links below for related online resources or visit our current exhibitions schedule.
We often think today of great collections of art, history, or nature as the province of our public institutions, but in the 17th century the idea of a publicly funded museum that would be open to all citizens was almost nonexistent in Europe. From the Middle Ages to the 19th century, rulers, nobles, and wealthy merchants acquired and sold paintings and classical sculpture. As the field of archaeology emerged, many sought and traded classical gems, vases, and numismatics, private libraries grew, and "curiosities" ranging from scientific instruments to mineral, plant, animal, and ethnographic specimens were popular. These collections were private and could include a range of these types of objects, and the museum, often housed in a private residence, was a way to demonstrate an individual's wealth and sophistication.
As such collections expanded, the need to document them arose. Some collectors wrote their own catalogues; others sought noted scholars to catalogue these works and thereby boost their value with their cachet. In the days before photography, artists were commissioned to produce lavish engravings depicting the assembled objects in fine detail. The private collection catalogue soon became as much a luxury object as the items it described, and as collections were dispersed over time, these catalogues often remained the only record of the collections' original contents. They provide scholars today with valuable information about the provenance of works of art, the contexts in which these objects were viewed in the past, and the values held by earlier societies.
The National Gallery of Art Library is fortunate to own a large number of these private collection catalogues, and this focus exhibition seeks to highlight this part of our own collection.
Organization: Organized by the National Gallery of Art.
Schedule: National Gallery of Art, Washington, February 5–July 24, 2011