The Digitization of the Kress Collection of
Since its beginnings, the National Gallery of Art has enjoyed the generosity of Samuel H. Kress (1863–1955) and the Kress Foundation. Beginning in 1939, the Gallery’s collection was shaped by his seminal gifts, including masterpieces as distinct as Giotto’s Madonna and Child and François Boucher’s Allegory of Painting.
Kress Collection of Historic Images at the National Gallery: Origins
While nearly 2,500 objects—the majority of Kress’s collection—went to the Gallery, he also donated European art to 90 institutions in 33 states, making it accessible in areas formerly without such cultural resources. By 1961, the Kress Collection had been disseminated throughout the United States. Afterward, the Foundation continued to serve as a repository for many archival and photographic materials pertaining to the Kress Collection.
In 1970, the Foundation established the photographic archive in the Gallery’s department of image collections: a rich resource for the study of images of Western art and architecture with more than 16 million photographs, slides, digital images, and other objects, now one of the largest art historical photo collections in the world.
In the years that followed—through the early 1980s—the Foundation donated its sizable holdings of photographs and negatives to the Gallery’s photographic archive for preservation and reproduction, if needed. These negatives were made by various photographers from about 1910 to 1969, and represent objects from the Kress gift (not including the 1,300 medals, plaquettes, and small bronzes purchased by Kress from Gustave Dreyfus).
Among the photographers represented are Murray Keyes (Foto Reali Archive, fig. 1); Alfred Martin, Siegfried Colten, and Paul Kiehart (fig. 2); National Gallery of Art staff photographers; and Sonja Bullaty and Angelo Lomeo. They document the objects in various views and states of conservation and occasionally include infrared images and x-rays. For decades, these materials have provided art historians with important documentation of the physical history of these objects.
Preservation for the Future
With historic negatives that are stored for so long, preservation is always a concern. Staff in the image collections department became concerned that these 5,600 images of the Kress Collection were beginning to degrade, so they began to explore scanning options. In 2008, the department received a grant from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation to digitize and upload the images to the department’s website for public access.
This project, completed in 2013, complemented the 2000–2006 Foto Reali digitization project undertaken with the assistance of ARTstor, a comprehensive digital resource for educational and scholarly image research. The Foto Reali glass negatives scanned by ARTstor include 612 Kress objects, and the associated records served as a springboard for the Kress Collection of Historic Images project.
Thanks to additional gifts to the department and continued reconsideration of the project’s scope during scanning, the project grew. The Gallery’s department of imaging and visual services transferred their negatives of non-NGA objects to the department of image collections, including 49 negatives of Kress objects photographed by NGA photographer Henry Beville from 1944 to 1946. Similarly, the Kress Foundation facilitated the donation of 844 color lantern slides made in the 1940s, largely by Louis Werner, which had already been scanned by the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University.
Inclusion and Evolution
To make the project as inclusive as possible, the image collections department’s extensive photographic archive was surveyed for additional images that were not represented in the negatives. This survey identified 1,800 new images. Among the many photographers represented by these photos are Fratelli Alinari, James and Domenico Anderson, Giacomo Brogi, A.C. Cooper, Villani, and Archivo Mas. We also scanned 217 oversize, sepia-tone, carbon prints by Vittorio Jacquier made in 1930 or 1931 (fig 3). Many of the Jacquier prints are annotated with opinions solicited by Samuel Kress in the 1930s from scholars such as Lionello Venturi, Roberto Longhi, Wilhelm Suida, and Giuseppe Fiocco. We scanned these and other signed opinions (including a few by Bernard Berenson) from the collection. The combination of the negatives, photographs, lantern slides, and other related materials uniquely document the history of each object.
The collection also includes photographs and negatives of some objects considered for purchase but returned to the dealer (called “Off Inventory” in the Kress Foundation records). In many cases, the dates of purchase and return were found in the files of the Kress Foundation Archives in New York and the National Gallery of Art Archives. Occasionally documentation also exists describing why the objects were not kept. Most notable are the evaluations by Alan Burroughs, who made x-rays accompanied by comment sheets for Kress. Burroughs was one of the earliest scholars to consider the information revealed by x-rays in his attributions.
Works on Paper
Also found in this collection are images of works on paper from the Kress Collection that were not published in the 1964–1977 catalogs sponsored by the Kress Foundation. These works include 20 drawings by Giovanni Battista Piazzetta donated to the Pierpont Morgan Library and seven prints by Albrecht Dürer formerly in the collection of Mrs. Rush Kress. Other objects formerly in Mrs. Kress’s collection (and many that are still with the family) are also found in the image collections department group.
The collection also includes decorative arts and furniture that adorned the Kress family’s Manhattan apartment. Many of these items are now lost but can be seen in 68 images of the Kress apartment at 1020 Fifth Avenue, New York (fig. 4). Of the many objects shown in these photographs, 285 have been identified and linked to their records. This information, along with the knowledge of when Kress donated each object, allowed us to date the apartment photographs to within a range of just a few years.
In addition to conducting attribution research and cataloging and scanning the images, we completely rehoused the Kress Collection of negatives. We separated the film and glass negatives, repacked them in better-fitting boxes, and placed the film in Mylar bags for cold storage. These measures will preserve this collection for researchers, who can also consult it through the department of image collections website.
In 2020 PLI completed scanning an additional 10,000 negatives and photographs of nearly 2,000 paintings, sculptures, small bronzes, medals, and plaquettes from the Gallery’s Samuel H. Kress Collection. These images, taken by NGA staff between c. 1940 and 2007, were previously housed in the department of imaging and digital services and augment the Kress Collection of Historic Images. All but a portion of the medals and plaquettes are now available on the image collections department website. We anticipate adding records for these remaining objects in 2021 which will complete the project.
Melissa Beck Lemke
Image Specialist for Italian Art
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