Carnegie Institute, Museum of Art: A History through Letters

By Judy Ng
December 8, 2011
Card from the Carnegie Institute Museum of Art card catalog (correspondence) index files.
Catalog card for Cecilia Beaux, between 1907 and 1908. Carnegie Institute, Museum of Art records, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

In November 2007, I was assigned the task of processing the Carnegie Institute, Museum of Art records with funding provided by The Brown Foundation. In 2010, funding to digitize parts of the collection became available from the Terra Foundation Center for Digital Collections at the Archives of American Art. So for this past year, significant portions of the collection, specifically the Exhibitions and International Series (Series 3 and 4) and the correspondence of the first two directors, John Beatty and Homer Saint-Gaudens, have been digitized. Now, a mere four years from that November 2007 start date, I'm happy to announce that the collection is completed and open for researcher use.

Dating from 1886–1962 and measuring 264 linear feet, this collection is a complete record of the museum’s work, starting with the planning of the first loan exhibition in 1885 and ending with the cancellation of the International at the start of World War II in 1940.

Eakins letter to Lapsley
Thomas Eakins, Philadelphia, Pa. letter to Caroline Stuyvesant Lapsley, Pittsburgh, Pa., 1902 Jan. 2. Carnegie Institute, Museum of Art records, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

As with many organizations, the Carnegie Museum of Art retired their “active” correspondence and records every two years and kept general correspondence separate from their International and Exhibitions related correspondence. While they kept meticulous card catalogs that tracked all incoming correspondence, because the records were broken into two year groupings, anyone looking to track down all of the correspondence related to a specific artist or exhibition spent an awful lot of time figuring out the system and pulling a lot of boxes. If they were interested in records dating pre-1907, they were really in for an adventure as letters were item/group level coded in a system that evolved from year to year. Cecilia Beaux, a popular artist and friend to both early Carnegie directors, had correspondence filed in twenty-four separate record storage boxes. While this does not include any of her letters in the Exhibitions or International Series, researchers can now come into the reading room, request one box, and peruse five folders worth of her correspondence to and from the Carnegie. It’s kind of a beautiful thing.

Cassatt letter to Gihon
Mary Cassatt letter to Albert Dakin Gihon, ca. 1905. Carnegie Institute, Museum of Art records, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Over the course of forty-five years worth of correspondence, one gets a feel for the staff of the Carnegie, particularly the directors. John Beatty comes across as a dedicated director, sending out reams of correspondence to artists and keeping the ship running. It’s almost unfair to compare, but in reading the letters, Homer Saint-Gaudens comes across as the witty, friendly, and popular fraternity brother who loves to tell jokes and write long cogent letters. There’s also no end to the drama and office gossip, such as the assistant director who may or may not have absconded with a “black book,” the commissioned painting of Andrew Carnegie that led to a flurry of memos regarding its questionable quality, and the many opinions expressed by artists regarding the success or failure of purchases, exhibitions, and the International (case in point, see jury objections in Box 219, Folder 11 in the International Series). And this doesn’t even begin to touch the voluminous letters of confidence exchanged between Saint-Gaudens and his European scouting representatives, Guillaume Lerolle, Charlotte Weidler, Margaret Palmer, Ilario Neri, and Arnold Palmer, some of which are available through his correspondence (see Box 125, Folder 27 in the Correspondence Series).

In this collection, correspondence highlights include the autobiographical recounting of George de Forest Brush’s time among the Shoshone and Arapaho, Thomas Eakin’s perfectly penned letter describing his Portrait of Professor Henry Rowland, and Mary Cassatt’s radical call to arms encouraging the rejection of the artist jury system.

Visit our reading room to check out the files for over 3900 artists, dealers, collectors, museum directors, and critics in the Correspondence Series or research the internal memos and correspondence of the Carnegie’s Department of Fine Arts staff. Or, click over to the materials that are currently available online, the letters and planning documents related to 185 group and one-man shows in the Exhibitions Series and the complete records of the Carnegie International, including artist ballots, invitations, and planning documents in the International Series. It’s a terrific collection full of real gems, many of them ready to be used and discovered for the first time.


Judy Ng is a processing archivist at the Archives of American Art.


Congratulation upon the completion of the task. I just want to know, is it possible to get the similar fund to digitize documents for museum outside the US?

Thanks for the link online, I will check it out!

What an amazing collection of letters! Great work!

This is great. I think it is about time. Owners of large bodies of work should be able to present their holdings to the public in an efficient manner.

It's amazing, i can't read any of these letters ! But it quite beautifull.
Thanks for this post !

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