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In the Library: The Convergence of Commerce and Instruction in Art

February 22 – June 3, 2016
East Building, Study Center Library

Faber-Castell, Preis-Liste der Bleistift-Fabrik, Stein bei Nürnberg, c. 1910, trade catalog, National Gallery of Art Library, David K. E. Bruce Fund

This exhibition is no longer on view at the National Gallery.

Overview: The art we experience often depends as much upon the materials available to the artists who make it as it depends on the artists themselves. This exhibition looks at a variety of literature surrounding artists’ materials and instruction, and charts the ways in which the increasing commercialization of their production may have affected the practice of artists, especially following the industrial revolution. From trade catalogs to instruction manuals, these books give us clues about the materials and techniques artists were using at a given time. This allows today’s scholars and conservators alike to better understand the physical attributes of the artworks they study and preserve.

In ages past, merchants would supply raw materials; artists, to a large degree, controlled the fabrication of usable tools from those materials on a relatively small scale, grinding their own pigments to make paint and fashioning pencils and brushes based on techniques handed down from master to apprentice in an artist’s workshop. Gradually, however, the production of artists’ working materials became the purview of the merchant and trade class. By the late Middle Ages, practices like paper and textile production were already controlled by trade guilds; this only increased through the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, with tools such as brushes and pencils beginning to be manufactured exclusively for artists. The industrial revolution made the mass production of even greater amounts of materials possible through mechanization, with the development of tubes for oil paint and cakes for water colors being particularly important for distribution. This shift in production also altered the relationships between many artists and their materials, for the first time allowing artists to work more freely outdoors, affording them more time, and/or reducing the number of assistants needed.

As companies developed new products, they also began to expand their audience beyond professional artists to also include a growing middle class of hobbyists with disposable income and increased free time. Pioneered by art suppliers like Winsor & Newton and the George Rowney Company in mid-19th-century London, companies would publish manuals describing various techniques that could be done with their products and, in a stroke of marketing genius, equip these manuals with an abbreviated catalog, conveniently allowing the reader to purchase the necessary tools to put the technique into practice. 

Organization: Organized by National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Brochure: The Convergence of Commerce and Instruction in Art by Yuri Long. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 2016.