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Lectures from the Allen Room and the Wertheim Study: The Lenox Library : The Library as Museum

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December 4, 2014

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One of The New York Public Library’s founding donors was the little known James Lenox (1800-1880).  His exceptional assemblage of rare books, prints, maps, and incunabula, which today form the heart of NYPL’s research holdings, were displayed, along with his paintings, sculptures and objects d’art, in the purpose-built Lenox Library (1877).  A combined library and art gallery, the library was a gift from Lenox to the citizens of New York designed by one of the nation’s leading architects, Richard Morris Hunt.  The Lenox Library graced upper Fifth Avenue until 1911 when it was demolished to make room for Henry C. Frick’s mansion, later the Frick Collection.

The combined display of books and art at the Lenox Library reflected large ambitions; ones that were different from Charles Willson Peale’s organization of his natural history museum in Baltimore or the contemporary efforts of William Corcoran in Washington, D.C.  Instead Lenox modeled his library/museum on England’s British Museum which originally housed a rich cache of art and artifacts and the nation’s library which was only recently transferred to a separate building.  Lenox’s model had an impact and its influence can be seen in the display practices of J. Pierpont Morgan for the Morgan Library in New York and Henry Huntington for the Huntington Library in San Marino, CA both of whom built monuments to their premier collections of art and books.

Through the use of archival photographs, sketches, reproductions of paintings, and prints, this lecture will illuminate Hunt’s design and the display of books and art at the Lenox Library.  By bringing to light this extraordinary multi-purpose building, one of the first in the city and in the nation to be both a research library and art gallery, it is hoped that James Lenox’s contribution can be better regarded and more fully valued.

Sally Webster is Professor Emerita of American Art at Lehman College and the Graduate Center, CUNY.  An authority on historic murals and monuments, her latest book is Eve’s Daughter/Modern Woman: A Mural by Mary Cassatt.  More recently her essay "Fables of abundance: The Huntington murals at Yale University Art Gallery," appeared in The Magazine Antiques.  Next year her book-length study The Nation’s First Monument and the Origins of the American Memorial Tradition will be published by Ashgate.  Professor Webster is a writer in residence in The New York Public Library’s Wertheim Study.