Rare Book Collection Highlights
Discover highlights of the library's rare book collection. Click a thumbnail to view a short presentation.
Biographies of Artists
The rare books collection contains one of the most complete samplings of compendium biographies of artists available anywhere in the United States. From every edition of Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists published from the 16th century through the 18th century, to John Ruskin’s own copy of his influential Modern Painters, to several copies of Henry T. Tuckerman’s Book of the Artists: American Artist Life ,including one extra-illustrated with photographs of the subjects, many signed by the artists themselves, these resources are invaluable for art historians.
Catalogues of the works in public collections are abundant, but the rare books collection also contains one of the largest assemblies of private collection catalogs available in a public institution. Not always intended for public consumption, these private collection catalogs were often produced in small numbers and distributed only to other collectors. Yet they constitute an important resource for scholars today, especially for areas such as provenance research.
Manuals and instruction books for artists have a long tradition in print, and the rare books collection contains volumes from the early 16th century to the early 20th century, including a sammelband of first editions of the works of Albrecht Dürer and Luca Pacioli’s Divina proportione with illustrations by Leonardo.
Catalogues of materials, especially paint and color sample books, are an important resource for researchers and conservators. They provide vital clues about the materials available in a given time and place which can illuminate an artist’s original intention. They also provide valuable information about how materials are altered over time by exposure to light and other environmental factors that may suggest the best methods for treating them today.
History of Photography
To support the Gallery’s growing photographs collection, the library seeks to provide access to books on the early history of photography. The collection includes many of Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre’s early publications on his discoveries as well as some of the earliest “published” photographs in the form of Henry Fox Talbot’s salted paper prints, which were pasted into an issue of the journal Art-Union.
The history of architecture is an important focus of the rare books collection, with special attention to volumes from Italy, France, Germany, England, and the United States. The collection boasts a wide range of material in this area, from theorietical treatises, to published architectural plans for new buildings or civic improvement projects, to trade manuals aimed at carpenters and craftsmen.
Emblem books employ images and text to amplify moral instruction. They usually combine verse devoted to a virtue or a vice with an image that depicts the virtue or vice pictorially. These books provide insight into cultural values and mores, and in addition, the characters are often depicted in period costume or set in architecture contemporary with the period. Beyond this, emblematic elements are often used in other media, such as painting or sculpture, and these books help researchers to decode meanings behind these elements for today’s viewers.
Travel guides are an extremely useful genre of literature for art historical research. They provide valuable information about the art and architecture of a particular time and place, but they also provide insight into the manners, customs, and culture of those locations and periods. Buildings that have since been destroyed or works of art that have been moved or lost may be described in these volumes, and in similar fashion they help us to understand the attitudes and interactions within those societies.
A growing area of the collection, festival books represent a window into the arts through public events and the décor commissioned for them, as well as the participants themselves, who were often patrons of the arts. Like travel guides, they provide not only physical descriptions, but a window into the values and culture of the cities where the events took place.
Modern and Contemporary Art Books, Artists’ Books, and Fine Press Editions
The rare book collection also contains a variety of 20th-century material. Works on Dada and surrealism support the Gallery’s collection of modern art, while fine press and artists’ books offer students and scholars the opportunity to study and discuss what defines books, what defines art, and where the two may intersect.
The Libraries of Art Historians and Collectors
The National Gallery of Art Library has acquired the libraries of several important art historians and collectors. They include John Rewald, Wolfgang Stechow, Julius Held, James Sallemi, Ladislao Reti, Chester Dale, Joseph Widener, Paul Mellon, and Robert Feller. Often the materials in these collections are extremely rare by their own nature or are unique because of annotations and additional material added by these former owners.
The National Gallery of Art Library rare books collection is also the repository for the letters and papers of several artists and art historians, including these important collections: