The Francis Edmonds papers document the art and business world of the early 19th century and the interrelationship between business and the arts. The correspondence reveals both the practical and aesthetic concerns of artists, and the interest of business men in art as a symbol of personal and national "culture."
The Francis Edmonds papers are about evenly divided between the banking and art scene. The collection is valuable in depicting the interrelationship between business and the arts in mid-nineteenth century New York, where a small group of men dominated art promotion and patronage. Edmonds, a man with one foot in both worlds, naturally occupied a prominent position, and his correspondence reveals both the practical and aesthetic concerns of artists, and the interest of business men in art as a symbol of personal and national "culture."
There are 70 different correspondents represented in this small collection, so its story must be pieced together from multiple fragments. Luckily, there are two published biographies of Edmonds which help to make sense of this scattered correspondence by placing it in context. Roughly, the letters can be divided into those from artists, those from business contacts, and those to or from family members. Their subject matter, however, is not so neatly separated -- and that is what makes the Edmonds Papers so interesting, for bankers talk of art in addition to business, artists of finances as well as aesthetics, and Edmonds may have been the only man to whom these combined interests were communicated.
The largest set of correspondence consists of letters from Francis Edmonds to elder brother John Worth Edmonds, who became prominent as a judge, politician, and writer on spiritualism. Letters written between 1823 and 1829 show the young man to have been much inclined toward personal improvement, and to have looked upon his elder brother as a worthy critic and role model. He self-consciously uses their correspondence as a means to improve his writing style and intellectual development, and mentions writing projects he is at work on. An 1829 letter refers to progress in art work: "About my neighborhood I am getting to be a little known as a painter however I am not at all intoxicated with success as yet."
Edmonds' letters to his brother reveal little of marriage or home life, but are good barometers of his psychological state and his views on life. Clearly he had no illusions about the business and political world, commenting in a March 31, 1829 letter that the Edmonds family had been "to [sic] kind in this world, too much trusting to the good will of mankind and they have suffered for their generosity. It is time we changed their nature's [sic]. ... if two hands are offered you spit in the worst & shake the best." Perhaps this attitude sustained him later on when he lost his prominent banking position, for he comments to his brother in October 1856 that "the sensitive feeling which has so influenced my conduct in going into the world is rapidly wearing away," which he knew would happen with time. In August, 1859, he writes that he is unhappy with his new position at the American Bank Note Company, and has to take the "bile" of those who are jealous and competitive of one another. It appears that he may have had an opportunity to regain his old bank job, but writes to John in 1861 that he has no interest in it, as his old boss would feel threatened by him.
Letters to Edmonds from John Gourlie, Charles Leupp, Jonathan Sturges, and Fanning Tucker, primarily dating from the 1840's, depict the interest in art held by some in the business world. These men, all of whom knew Edmonds in a business setting, also associated with him in societies for the promotion of art, bought and commented upon his paintings and those of other artists, and looked to him for advice when acquiring art for themselves. Many of the letters discuss both banking and art. A particularly interesting one, from Gourlie on June 15, 1841, criticizes artists' refusal to be business-like. Commenting upon rivalry between the Apollo Association and the N.A.D., he remarks that artists "are a queer set. ... So sensitive and at the same time so blind to their own interests." He believes popularization of art, as the Apollo does with its subscriptions for pictures or engravings, is the key to supporting artists, for "[a]ssociations in this country are what the aristocracy is in Europe." Gourlie asserts that rivalry between the Academy and Apollo is a good thing, for "rivalry is the life of all business and pictures may be made business matters as well as cotton or cocoa.!"
Yet correspondence to Edmonds from fellow-artists show them to have been aware that their work was a commodity. An 1841 January 30 letter from Daniel Huntington to Edmonds in Paris comments on hard times in New York, remarking that the arts are now "stagnant," as "[t]he mass of painters are I believe lasily waiting with hands in empty pockets for the revival of Commerce & the increase of orders for portraits." Huntington has sold a sketch he began in Rome of "one of those ragged and flea-inhabited beggar boys" for $100, and sold two heads painted at Florence for $150 each. He must be concerned with what will sell well "in these starving times." Artists Joseph Adams, Thomas Cole, and John Kensett also write of both art and money. They seem to have used Edmonds as a combination personal banker and agent, asking him to sell paintings for them, choose and execute stock transactions, or make loans with paintings offered as collateral. Because of his contacts he was also able to secure artists commissions, contracting with Cole for a painting, employing Asher Durand to copy a picture for engraving, hiring engravers to work from paintings to prepare Apollo Association and Art-Union premium offerings.
The artists' letters are highly interesting for their gossip and commentary on the art scene, both in New York and abroad. They describe work in progress, discuss the merits of major exhibitions, comment on the activities of the N.A.D., and chronicle the life of the expatriate artist as he moves from place to place in season, sending work home for display and (hopefully) sale, scrambling for funds to finance work abroad. It seems to have been a small and convivial "old boys' network" who worked and traveled together and critiqued each other's painting. Edmonds enjoyed seven months of the artist's life in 1840-41, and perhaps this cemented his position as an insider with other artists.
In two important letters of 1840 November 7 and 1842 December 14 Thomas Cole agrees to do a painting of Mt. Etna on commission and describes the finished product. He explains the location and elements of the picture in detail, noting that he may be accused of having "scattered the flowers with too profuse a hand. This is not possible. Sicily is truly the land of flowers..." He hopes the picture "will come to the lot of some one whom we would choose," or that "some good New Yorker will purchase it. I myself will give a hundred dollars & the View of Lake Schroon in Mr. Ridner's room for it." In April 1843 John Kensett writes extensively of the Paris art scene, describing specific works he has seen and including a small pencil sketch of one by Jules Louis Coignet.
Also of particular interest are three 1844 London letters from publisher and bookseller George Putnam, who worked to raise awareness of American art abroad. One solicits articles on American art from Edmonds, assuring him that despite prejudice there are many in England who would be interested in "a little information about American doings in some other arts than the art of raising the wind." In December, reporting on the disappointing reaction of a major critic to three American paintings Edmonds sent for display, he ruefully remarks that the criticism typified English ignorance of America. Putnam was advised to "'tell them to paint some American subject (!) Something of the Indian life.' He was rather incredulous when I suggested that Indians were as great a novelty, nearly, in New York as in London." Still, he wrote, hundreds had viewed and appreciated the paintings, so they had served a good purpose.
One letter in the collection involves neither art nor banking, but Civil War service in Virginia. It is from an old friend of Edmonds, William Fenton, who went to war along with his two sons and served as a colonel in the 8th Michigan regiment. Fenton describes a massive camp along the Rappahannock in detail and indignantly decries the "slaughter" at Fredericksburg as "almost unjustifiable," and due to "old fogeyism" in military strategy. "What was good strategy in the time of Napoleon may not be now." He criticizes political meddling in war and the advancement of "pets." Fenton encourages Edmonds to visit camp, for "[s]uch sights will never again be seen on this continent."
Besides correspondence, news clippings, some later genealogical material, and a draft excerpt from Edmonds' autobiography (ca.1860), the collection includes several pencil sketches by the artist. Eight rough but skillful sketches on small scraps of paper feature indoor and outdoor scenes of people and animals. One is water-colored. There is also a large preliminary study of Edmonds painting "The Bashful Cousin". It is not identified as such, and background scene and details differ from the finished version, but the two main characters are clearly recognizable.