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William Mills Ivins papers, 1878-1964

Biographical Note

William Mills Ivins, Jr. (1881-1961), a lawyer, first became interested in collecting prints and illustrated books while an undergraduate at Harvard. He studied the history of printmaking through self-directed reading, by looking at prints in the major European libraries and museums, and tried his hand at many of the printmaking processes. While practicing law, he wrote articles and organized some small exhibitions of prints as early as 1908. In 1916, the Metropolitan Museum of Art appointed its first Curator of Prints to organized a Department of Prints and Drawings and to develop its small existing collection. Upon the recommendation of Paul J. Sachs who was unable to accept the position, Ivins was selected. He held the post until his retirement some thirty years later.
During his tenure as Curator of Prints, Ivins became one of the most highly respected individuals in the profession. Under Ivins the collection grew in scope, size, and quality; he acquired materials by cultivating potential donors, and through systematic purchase of pieces not likely to come into the collection by bequest. The department's active exhibition schedule included some especially noteworthy shows, such as The Arts of the Book in 1924.
Ivins was knowledgeable and shared information by writing several books on prints and the history of printmaking, and by writing large numbers of articles for the educated layman. His articles often highlighted items in the permanent collection, and frequently appeared in the museum's Bulletin. He was interested in perspective, psychology of perception, aesthetics, mathematics and modern philosophy, and wrote on these topics, as well.
He was an accomplished speaker and was in much demand as a lecturer. Of particular note were his series on Illustrated Books of the Renaissance at the Morgan Library in 1936, and the 1950 Lowell Lectures (subsequently published under the title Prints and Visual Communication).
In addition to his curatorial duties, Ivins served as Assistant Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art between 1933 and 1938, and was its Acting Director from 1938 until 1940. Francis Henry Taylor was appointed Director in 1940, and Ivins was named to the newly created post of Counselor; failure to attain the directorship was a bitter disappointment, which many attributed to his lack of tact and generally difficult disposition.
Ivins retired in 1946, and continued to write and publish until the mid-1950's. During this period he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Yale University (1946), made an honorary fellow of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1946), named a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1950), and invited to deliver the annual lectures at the Lowell Institute (1950). He died at the age of eighty in 1961, after several years of declining health.
Ivins' private collection of prints and illustrated books, which he had continued to amass through the 1930's, was partially dispersed during his lifetime through gifts to the Metropolitan Museum and to a number of university and special libraries. The portion remaining in his estate was sold at auction by Parke Bernet between 1962 and 1964.
1881
born to William Mills Ivins and Emma Yard Ivins, Flatbush, N.Y.
1890-1893
attended King's School, Stamford, Conn.
1896
trip to South America with father
1897
graduation from St. Paul's School, Concord, N.H.
1901
graduation from Harvard (A.B.)
1901-1902
travelled in Europe with Paul Haviland, and studied economics at University of Munich
1902-1904
employed by The World's Work, writing articles on economic and artistic subjects
1907
graduation from Columbia School of Law
1907-1916
practiced law in New York City: Ivins, Wolff and Houget for New York Public Service Commission, 1907-1908; Strong and Cadwallader, 1908-1909; Cravath, Henderson, and der Gersdorff, 1909-1916
1908
arranged first exhibition of prints, Keppel & Co,
1910
marriage to Florence Wyman, an illustrator
1916
appointed first Curator of Prints, Metropolitan Museum of Art
c. 1927-1935
served on editorial board of Metropolitan Museum Studies
1933-1938
Assistant Director, Metropolitan Museum of Art
1937
Morgan Library Lectures
1938
Honorary Curator of Prints and Drawings, Morgan Library
1938-1940
Acting Director, Metropolitan Museum of Art (Note: Mr. Ivins continued to act as Curator of Prints during periods when he was assigned other major administrative responsibilities at the museum)
1940
Counselor, Metropolitan Museum of Art
1946
Honorary Fellow, Metropolitan Museum of Art; retirement from Metropolitan Museum of Art; Honorary Doctorate, Yale University
1950
Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences; Lowell Lectures (published in 1953 under the title Prints and Visual Communication)
1961
death
1962-1964
Ivins Collection of Prints and Illustrated Books sold at auction by Parke Bernet
1977-1983
William M. Ivins, Jr. Papers donated to the Archives of American Art by his daughter, Barbara Ivins