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Brief History of the Print Collection

The New York Public Library’s Print Collection was founded in 1900, with Samuel Putnam Avery’s gift of his collection of nearly 18,000 prints, amassed during his life as a successful art dealer and philanthropist. The new print room, New York’s first and still the city’s most accessible, also drew together print-related materials from the collections of the Astor and Lenox Libraries, and the Tilden Foundation, which had merged in 1895 to form New York City’s first public library.

The Avery Collection is especially strong in etchings by Avery’s late 19th-century French contemporaries, whose art he had helped introduce to American collectors throughout his career. However, the collection also includes British, Dutch and German prints, as well as significant holdings of prints by a handful of Americans, such as the ex-patriots Mary Cassatt and James McNeill Whistler. There are, in addition, a small number of drawings, selected works by earlier artists, including Francisco Goya, examples of early lithography, and a collection of prints by women artists from the 16th to the 19th centuries.

Samuel J. Tilden bequeathed the Library his collection of British caricature, including a scrapbook assembled by Horace Walpole, a near-complete collection of prints by William Hogarth, and one of the most significant collections of prints and working drawings by James Gillray in the United States. Tilden’s prints helped foster a passion for political caricature in Frank Weitenkampf, the collection’s first curator. Weitenkampf built up an important collection of American caricature, from the beginnings of the nation through the early twentieth century.

The work of American printmakers and book illustrators have also been a strength of the Library’s print collection dating from its earliest days, formalized as policy in 1909 with the director’s charge to assemble “as complete a collection as possible of the results of the graphic arts as practiced in America.” In the first decades of the Print Collection’s existence, this practice resulted in noteworthy acquisitions of prints by such highly skilled 19th-century engravers as James and James D. Smillie, and the wood engraver Timothy Cole, as well as such mid-twentieth-century painter-printmakers as Martin Lewis, John Sloan and Reginald Marsh.

In part stimulated by S.P. Avery’s passionate accumulation of the works of his contemporaries, the Print Collection has continued to acquire contemporary prints, the focus of which is international in scope.

Perhaps the most widely utilized prints in the collection are the American historical prints. Three considerable gifts, dating from the 1890s to the 1930s, formed the basis of these extensive holdings. The Thomas Addis Emmet collection of extra-illustrated books was presented to the Library in 1896 by John S. Kennedy. Along with a large body of manuscript material held in the Manuscripts and Archives Division, the Emmet Collection contains thousands of illustrations relating to the early history of the United States, from the Revolutionary period through the mid-19th century. A remarkable collection of 477 seventeenth- through nineteenth-century views of New York City was given in 1922 by Amos F. Eno, substantially enhancing the Library’s holdings of that subject. Finally, in 1930, The Phelps Stokes Collection of over 800 views, maps and historical scenes of the American continents, from its discovery through the nineteenth century, was given to the Library by the architect and historian, Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes.

Alongside the work of contemporary artists and prints of historical subjects, the Print Collection began acquiring Old Master prints soon after 1900, and the collection has grown to include fine examples of woodcuts, engravings, and etchings by Albrecht Dürer, Hendrick Goltzius, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, and Jean-Honoré Fragonard, to name only a few. While not a focused collecting area, a small number of drawings have also entered the collection, notably a group of Old Master drawings from the collection of Count Jan Pieter van Suchtelen.

In 1901, soon after Avery’s gift established the Print Collection, Charles Stewart Smith donated a group of 1,763 Japanese woodcuts, which were assembled by the English military man, journalist and author, Frank Brinkley. Among these color woodcuts is a celebrated group of prints by Kitagawa Utamaro, as well as examples of the work of Harunobu, Koryusai, Sharaku and Hokusai. Later additions to the Japanese print collection include ten woodcuts acquired from the Louis V. Ledoux collection, as well as a complete set of the first edition of Hiroshige's Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido, and prints from the Russo-Japanese and Sino-Japanese wars. There is also a group of Chinese prints, including some important early Buddhist woodcuts and some 250 Chinese popular prints assembled by Carl Schuster.

Before the Beaux-Arts Library building opened at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street in 1911, the prints were housed mainly in the Lenox Library. Since 1911, the Print Room has remained in Room 308, with incremental additions and improvements throughout the Library’s first century. In January 2002, the newly renovated Prints and Photographs Study Room, funded by Miriam and Ira D. Wallach, reopened to the public.

For information on the history of The New York Public Library, see the About The New York Public Library.

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