American Collections blog

« February 2017 | Main | April 2017»

4 posts from March 2017

29 March 2017

Did you know about the Museum of French Art in New York?

The “Museum of French Art” in New York, founded as a society in 1911, was a subsection of the French Institute in the United States dedicated to arts. It was housed with the French Institute in the United States on 599 Fifth Avenue, New York City, had a Gallery with permanent French art collections, a library and a reading room. It held temporary exhibitions of French art loaned by private collectors. The Museum of French Art was most active until the 1930s, at a time when the opening of museums and art galleries was booming in New York.

French Museum plan

Plans for the building of the French Art Museum in the United States, 1919 from Répertoire de l'art français aux Etats-Unis dans des collections particulières et au Musée d'art français. ([New York], 1919) British Library RB.31.C.836.

When the Museum of French Art was created, Fifth Avenue was already home to the Metropolitan Museum of Art which opened in 1872, and for the Henry Clay Frick House, built in 1912-1914, whose collections were opened to the public in 1935. The Museum of Modern Art also opened on Fifth Avenue on 7 November, 1929, nine days after the Wall Street Crash. The Museum of French Art was inspired not only by fine arts museums but also by institutions like the “South Kensington Museum” (founded after the 1851 Great Exhibition, now the Victoria and Albert Museum) and the more recent Musée des arts décoratifs de Paris created in 1905. It was never built as a distinct monument, though its trustees tried to raise funds for this purpose: in 1919, plans for such a construction were published at the end of the catalogue of its first official exhibition.

French Museum Jusserand

French Ambassador Jules Jusserand with Mme Jusserand, 1918 (Image from the Library of Congress)

The idea for the creation of a French Institute in the United States emerged at a council of the Alliance Française of New York. The institute had three subsections: the “Museum of French Art”, whose aim was to promote French Fine Arts and to be a window for French arts and crafts, past and present; the “Entente France-America”, focused on commerce, industry and science; and the “French Union”, a society dedicated to Belles Lettres: Literature, History and philosophy. The French Institute and its art section offered French language courses, technical courses on French arts and crafts, it awarded French language prizes to high school students and organised concerts and lectures for the public and for its members. The British Library holds the programme of a Gala Concert held in 1913 by the Museum of French Art in honour of the French Ambassador in Washington and his American wife, Mr et Mme Jusserand.

French Museum Concert Programme

Programme for a Gala Concert offered by the Museum of French Art to the French Ambassador at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, December 14th, 1913. (New York, [1913]) d.488.l.(10.)


The suna

Advertisement for an exhibition of the Museum of French Art, The Sun, 25 January 1920.  NEWS12364

The first official exhibitions held at the Museum of French Art in 1918, 1919 and 1920, were organised chronologically (“From the Gothic Period to the Regence”, “Periods of Louis XV and Louis XVI”, “The Directoire and Empire Periods”). In 1920, the chairman of the Exhibitions department of the French Art Museum, Mrs Henry Mottet, donated to the British Museum (along with 20 major European and American museums and libraries) a copy of the catalogues for the first two exhibitions, which were published in large format limited editions of 100 copies.

French Museum interior 1

French Museum interior 2

Images from The First Official Loan Exhibition of the Museum of French Art, held in 1918, from Répertoire de l'art français aux Etats-Unis dans des collections particulières et au Musée d'art français.


Later exhibitions focused on specific French artists: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1922), Odilon Redon (1922), Picasso, Braque, Léger (1931), Degas (1931), Renoir (1931), Derain and Vlaminck (1932) and historical characters: “Napoléon and l'Aiglon” (1927), the Marquis de Lafayette (1930). Other exhibitions had a particular thematical, historical or geographical focus: “Fans and handiwork of court and home life, XVIth to XIXth centuries” (1926-1927), “The art and customs of the Basque country of southwestern France” (1927), “Silken textiles of France: Louis XIII to Louis Philippe” (1928), “Ecclesiastical arts of France” (1928), “French prints from the XVth century to the XXth century” (1932).

The Director of the Museum of French Art was Emile McDougall Hawkes, founder and first president of the Institut Français in the United States, a lawyer and engineer from New York who had studied in France and Germany, was active in several Franco-American cultural associations based in New York, including the Alliance Française, focusing on French language teaching outside of France, and he received the French distinction of Commandeur de la Légion d’honneur. He was a trustee of the Foundation of another Francophile and patrons of the arts, John Sanford Saltus.

 McDougall Hawkes, by John Bow?, 1910


A portrait of McDougall Hawkes, dated from 1910, and signed l.l., possibly John Bow, was sold in 2015 by Cowan’s Auctions. It bears a plaque inscribed “McDougall Hawkes, First Chairman of the Board of Trustees, 1911-1929, Museum of French Art, French Institute in the United States”.

McDougall Hawkes was also involved in other trade and science organisations, including the French-American Chamber Commerce, “Entente France-America”, a society which aimed “to develop commercial, industrial, economic and scientific relations between the American and French peoples” (New York Times, 11 Aug 1916), and the French-American Medical, Chemical and Physics Society.

Biscuit de Sèvres tp

Title-page, with McDougall Hawkes’ inscription, from Le Biscuit de Sèvres. Recueil des modèles de la manufacture de Sèvres au XVIIIe siècle ([Paris, 1921]) 7808.s.7.

When McDougall Hawkes visited the British Museum in 1922, he donated to the library a signed copy of Le Biscuit de Sèvres by Émile Bourgeois and Georges Lechevallier-Chevignard, illustrated by many plates.

Biscuit de Sèvres ill

Plate from Le Biscuit de Sèvres.


Irène Fabry-Tehranchi, Curator, Romance languages


Museum of French Art, French Institute in the United States. Répertoire de l'art français aux Etats-Unis dans des collections particulières et au Musée d'art français. Tome I: l’Art gothique. First annual official loan exhibition of French art, January 29th to February 12th, 1918.  Catalogue: Gothic period to the Régence. Tome II, Le dix-huitième siècle. Catalogue of the second annual official loan exhibition of French art: periods of Louis XV & XVI, held at the gallery of the Museum in the city of New York, January 14 to January 29, 1919. ([New York?]: Privately printed, 1919). RB.31.C.836 and RB.31.C.837.

 “The French Institute and Museum of French Art in the United States”, The Lotus Magazine, Vol. 3, No. 9 (Jun., 1912), pp. 267-280. [JSTOR]

“To Develop French Trade: Prominent New Yorkers Incorporate Entente France-America”, New York Times, 11 Aug 1916, p. 11.  MFM.MA3


22 March 2017

In various light: a farewell to Derek Walcott



As a teenager I had the following stanzas from Derek Walcott’s poem In a Green Light on my bedroom door:

The orange tree, in various light,

Proclaims perfected fables now

That her last season’s summer height

Bends from each overburdened bough.


She has her winters and her spring,

Her moult of leaves, which in their fall

Reveal, as with each living thing,

Zones truer than the tropical.


And it is a strange feeling now to be writing this blog as Curator of Latin America and the Caribbean at the British Library in the sad wake of Walcott’s death on March 17th. Born in 1930 on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, Walcott attended University in Jamaica and then moved to Trinidad where he founded the Trinidad Theatre Workshop in 1950. Walcott received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1992. Walcott’s poetry, prose, and plays reckon with the colonial and post-colonial socio-historical forces of the Caribbean.  In his Nobel lecture The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory, Derek Walcott stated:

“Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole. […] It is such a love that reassembles our African and Asiatic fragments, the cracked heirlooms whose restoration shows its white scars. […]Antillean art is this restoration of our shattered histories, our shards of vocabulary, our archipelago becoming a synonym for pieces broken off from the original continent.”

The British Library has a significant collection of Walcott’s works including a first edition of his very first play: Henri Christophe: A Chronicle in Seven Scenes (1950) (BL Shelfmark, that focuses on politics and power in post-Revolutionary Haiti. The play was first produced in London in 1952.  

  Walcott blog

Walcott's epic poem Omeros (BL Shelfmark YC.1991.a.590), published in in 1990 , is a ground breaking work that weaves across time and space touching upon (among other things) classical Greece, the trans-atlantic slave trade, colonialism, cultural syncretism, love and death. The sound archive here at the British Library holds recordings of Walcott reading Omeros, as well as other works. And you will also find uncorrected proofs of Derek Walcott’s poetry such as In a Green Night (Add MS 88984/5/37/4) and many of Walcott’s plays such as The Odyssey (MPS 5344) in our manuscripts collections. A master at conveying the power of history and memory, Derek Walcott’s voice lives on shedding light on our human condition.

10 March 2017

Pocahontas and After in the Library's Catalogues

Next Saturday 18 March 2017, the British Library will be hosting a full day of events to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the death of Pocahontas.  The cultural day will be a reflection on the historical and cultural legacies of this notable Powhatan/Pamunkey Indian woman, and forms part of the wider activities of the ‘Pocahontas and After: historical culture and transatlantic encounters’ academic conference co-hosted by the Institute of Historical Research and the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library.

Of course, Pocahontas has been extensively written about and studied over the course of the four centuries since her death and burial in Gravesend, Kent.  She also has a very strong visual presence in the archives, starting with the infamous 1616 Simon Van De Passe engraving made during her visit to England which was sponsored by the Virginia Company of London.  Her association with Virginia and Jamestown is a theme that reappears and was particularly prominent in 1907, the tri-centennial of the English settlement which was commemorated at the Jamestown Exposition. 

Jamestown Exposition Stamps

The Library holds several items related to the Exposition that are of interest, and reveal how Pocahontas’ image, and that of Native Americans more widely, was appropriated at a time of resurgent nationalism that followed in the wake of the Spanish-American War.  While the Exposition was privately financed, it received support from the Federal Government, and included a very large naval and military display for which President Theodore Roosevelt delivered the opening address.  He also intervened directly with the Post Office Department, requesting that they produce the above specially commissioned stamps which you can see in the Library's Philatelic Collections.  The 2¢ stamp depicts the landing of the Virginia Company’s three ships, and is flanked by a tobacco plant and a stalk of corn (the former becoming a major commodity for the colony).  Both the 1¢ which shows Captain John Smith with smaller portraits of Pocahontas and her father Chief Powhatan on either side, and the 5¢ stamp of Pocahontas were based on Van De Passe engravings.  The latter was intended for visitors sending postcards internationally from the exposition, and shows how Pocahontas was continuing to be used as a global ambassador for the United States.

Glory of Jamestown

The cover of the score for Glory of Jamestown, the Exposition’s official march, depicts a generic Native American chief and woman, presumably a loose reference to Powhatan and Pocahontas, alongside an aerial view of the Exposition.  It is typical of images from the event, in that Native Americans are literally used as a framing device for the main image.[1]  It is not too much of a stretch of the imagination to identify the echoes of English colonial naval power  in the prominent display of imperial American power. 

This collection also includes the scores for ‘Sing Me A Song of Dixie Land’, ‘Virginia, the Pride of My Heart’, and ‘Sing Me A Song of the South’, which point to another theme of the exposition: the South’s role in the national story.  Indeed, this opportunity to prominently parade the South's economic and business prowess on an international platform was one of the main drivers behind the Exposition as can be seen in The Old South and the New: a complete illustrated history of the Southern states from the earliest times to the Jamestown Exposition.  A richly illustrated book, it balances nostalgic reminicences of the 'Old South' with forward-looking anecdotes of the 'New South'.

The Old South and the New

Last but by no means least, The London Company of Virginia: a brief account of its transactions in colonizing Virginia is a limited commemorative book published by the London Company for the Exposition.  It consists of a brief history and numerous portraits of individuals who were important in the founding of Jamestown.  These portraits were displayed at the Exposition and were reproduced here in photogravure.  Again, the importance of Van De Passe’s engraving in the imagining of Pocahontas is evident.  Her features are somewhat softened in this rendition, and she is given the contentious titular ‘Princess’.  The text accompanying the image clearly outlines the benefits the company reaped from Pocahontas, and the narrative that was created around her: “The sensation which was created by the visit of Pocahontas to London was not without its effect upon the Virginia colony.  New interest was awakened in this land beyond the seas which seemed to be personified in the graceful simplicity of the Indian maiden Pocahontas.” 

London Company


Perhaps the most poignant image in the book is that of Pocahontas’ burial site at St George’s Church, alongside the note that “Some Americans proposed that a memorial be erected at Gravesend, but, for some cause or other, the plan was never carried through.  Of late years, however, a rector of the church placed a marble there to the ‘Virginia lady born’ with a brief account of her services in saving the first Virginia colony.”  The 400th anniversary of her death thus provides a fitting moment to reflect on the multiple historic and continuing contemporary cultural appropriations of Pocahontas, her meaning for Native Americans today, but most of all to celebrate this notable woman.

Tickets for the cultural day are available on the British Library What's On page.

Registration for the academic conference is through the Institute of Historical Research website.

- F.D. Fuentes Rettig with thanks to Richard Morel


[1] Frederich W. Gleach, “Pocahontas at the Fair: Crafting Identities at the 1907 Jamestown Exposition”, Ethnohistory, Vol.50, N. 3, Summer 2003, p.430.

08 March 2017

Marking International Women’s Day: The Lowell Offering

To celebrate International Women’s Day we’re showcasing The Lowell Offering (1840-45), an extraordinary periodical that students from Royal Holloway asked to see when they attended a research training session here last week: and with good reason! In its short life this monthly periodical provided female textile workers in Lowell, Massachusetts – where women comprised 75% of the workforce – with a unique opportunity to see their poetry, ballads, songs, historical and religious essays or works of fiction in print.

Lowell first 12 

The Lowell Offering, Vol. 1, 1840; shelfmark P.P.6242

Perhaps surprisingly – given the ‘dark satanic mills’ of Victorian Britain – many women in New England initially regarded factory work as a well-paid alternative to teaching. The literacy rate amongst the operatives was high, and the creation of self-improvement societies was widespread; indeed, the Offering sprang from one such group. Writing about its origins, Harriet Farley – the Offering’s second editor – recalled that her group met fortnightly to read and listen to the written contributions of its members. Gradually the membership declined, yet the quality of the contributions kept improving and someone suggested compiling the contributions into ‘a little book’. This idea ‘was talked about in whispers’ but was soon supplanted by something even more audacious: a plan to publish a monthly periodical. Farley recalls:

We shall never forget our throb of pleasure when first we saw The Lowell Offering in a tangible form, with its bright yellow cover; nor our flutterings of delight as we perused its pages. True – we had seen or heard the articles before; but they seemed so much better in print. They appeared, to us, as good as any body’s writings. They sounded as if by people who never worked at all. The din and clatter of the mills had not confused the brains of the writers, and no cotton fuzz had obscured the brightness of their ideas… (The Lowell Offering, November 1842: shelfmark P.P.6242)

The Lowell Offering was funded through subscription and undoubtedly proved more successful than its contributors could ever have anticipated. In time, however, it was criticised both by mill-owners, who resented the way in which the women reflected (both directly and indirectly) upon life in the mills, as well as by reformers who believed it should take a far tougher stand against factory conditions. In 1845 it was discontinued, but two years later, Farley started The New England Offering – ‘Written by Females Who Are or Have Been Factory Operatives’ – which ran until 1850.

New england offering 12

The New England Offering, 1849; shelfmark P.P.6242

For nearly a decade, the Lowell and New England Offerings gave these women a singular creative outlet; for readers today, they provide a unique insight into the women’s inner and professional lives during a period of rapid industrialisation and social change.

References: The Lowell Offering, Lowell. Mass., 1840-45. Shelfmark: P.P.6242; The New England Offering. Lowell, Mass., 1847-1850. Shelfmark: P.P.6242

American Collections blog recent posts



Other British Library blogs