American Art-Union

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A mid-nineteenth-century association of subscribers who supported the production and distribution of American art. Based on European precedents, it was established as the Apollo Association in 1839 but changed its name a few years later. The American Art-Union remained the largest and most successful of several mid-century art unions, and by about 1850 was perhaps the most influential art institution in the country. In return for an annual fee of five dollars, participants received a periodical subscription, an engraving of a painting, and the opportunity to acquire an original work of art through a lottery. Although the bulk of its members lived in the Northeast, the Art-Union attracted a national constituency of middle-class citizens. The Art-Union's purpose was both educational and nationalistic. Its Bulletin (before 1848, Transactions), the first American art magazine, evolved into an ambitious monthly devoted to inculcating informed taste. Through its articles and illustrations, it acquainted readers with important historical and contemporary art, with techniques and terms of art discourse, and with the literature of art, such as the recent writings of Englishman John Ruskin. The art chosen for distribution to members was exclusively American, reflecting the organization's self-conscious patriotism and desire to foster a native school. As it prospered, the finest American artists became eager to show their work in its New York gallery, in the hope that it would be bought by the organization. Although the Art-Union's first landscape engravings were not issued until 1850, earlier selections included American genre images and historical scenes, as well as classical subjects and moralizing narratives. Among important artists whose work the Art-Union supported and popularized were George Caleb Bingham, Thomas Cole, John Kensett, William Sidney Mount, and Richard Caton Woodville. At the peak of its popularity in 1849, the Art-Union boasted nearly nineteen thousand subscribers. In that year it distributed 460 works of art through the lottery. The organization's swift demise in 1852 followed the New York State Supreme Court's ruling that the lottery, as a form of gambling, was illegal. The organization was directed to liquidate its assets and cease operations. Among similar organizations, Cincinnati's Western Art-Union was founded in 1847; the New England Art-Union organized the following year in Boston; and the Cosmopolitan Art Association, established in Sandusky, Ohio, in 1854, expanded to New York in 1857. There until 1862 it was particularly associated with the highly finished, detailed realism of German painting from Düsseldorf, as it managed to skirt the legal niceties of continuing to run a lottery. It published the monthly Cosmopolitan Art Journal from 1856 until 1860.

Subjects: Art.

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