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American Art-Union print collection

Call Number

PR 159


1840-1851, inclusive


American Art-Union


1.2 Linear feet (760 prints)

Language of Materials

This collection is primarily visual. Any text is likely to be in English.


Collection of prints issued by the American Art-Union, a subscription-based art organization.

Historical Note

The American Art-Union was first known as the Apollo Association for the Promotion of the Fine Arts in the United States. The Apollo Association was founded by James Herring, a businessman who was concerned that American artists had no place to show or sell their paintings other than their own studios. He opened the Apollo Gallery in New York City in 1838 to remedy this situation, and in January of 1839 came up with the idea of a subscription organization to better distribute artists' works to the interested public. The Apollo Association was initially successful, with 814 members subscribing in its first year. When sufficient funds were not forthcoming to compensate Herring for his gallery space and labor, he was forced to withdraw his gallery as an exhibition space for the Association. After the break with Herring, the Apollo Association renamed itself the American Art-Union (AAU) in 1840 (a change which became official in 1844) and tried to find new gallery space to show artworks the Union purchased.

The subscription-based AAU charged five dollars per year to its members, which entitled each to an annual premium of one engraving published by the Union after a contemporary work of American art in their collection. One of the goals of the organization was to foster an American school of painting, both by promoting artists and developing an appreciative audience. Most of the artwork purchased and engraved for distribution by the AAU was historical in subject, as was the fashion of the day. Toward the end of the 1840s, however, the AAU approached Thomas Cole, who specialized in landscape and allegorical subjects, to paint a four-part series based on the theme of the "Voyage of Life." The AAU planned to issue engravings after the four paintings to subscribing members but never did. "Youth" alone was issued as a member print; the other three appeared as frontispieces in the Bulletin of the American Art-Union for October 1850 ("Childhood") and November 1850 ("Manhood" and "Old Age").

The AAU flourished as the demand for its product grew larger with each passing year. By 1849 the Art-Union boasted 18,960 members, and did well by them. In 1844 and 1847 members received both an annual and a second print; in 1844 they also received an illustrated book, Harvey's American Landscape Scenery . In 1848 the AAU began publishing its illustrated monthly art journal. In 1848 and 1849 books with Felix O.C. Darley illustrations of Washington Irving stories were issued to every member in addition to their print. In 1850 and 1851 members received five small prints in addition to the customary large print.

In addition to issuing prints, the Art-Union purchased other paintings and artworks from artists with the remainder of the funds collected, which were distributed among the members by means of an annual lottery. Each member was awarded one chance in the lottery, in which original paintings by popular artists such as William Sidney Mount and Thomas Cole were among the prizes.

Its popularity created a mammoth organization that became difficult to administer. Out-of-town members also rose to more than two thirds the total number, forcing the AAU to spend more money on postage than anticipated. The critical blow to the AAU, however, came in 1852 when the New York State Supreme Court found the yearly lottery of artworks to be illegal. The AAU was forced to dissolve, and in 1852 held an auction to sell off the paintings and sculptures in their collection. In 1863, those that went unsold, as well as the records of the organization, were given to the New-York Historical Society, many members of which had also been AAU subscribers.


Mann, Maybelle. The American Art-Union. Jupiter, Fl.: ALM Associates, 1987.

Cowdrey, Mary Bartlett. American Academy of Fine Arts and American Art-Union. New York: New-York Historical Society, 1953.


The collection is organized in three series:

Series I. Membership Prints

Series II. Other Prints

Series III. Duplicate Membership Prints

Scope and Content Note

The American Art-Union Print Collection spans the period from 1840 to 1851 and contains prints by American artists issued by the Art-Union to its members. The collection also contains a few prints that were used as frontispieces in the Bulletin of the American Art-Union . The collection is arranged in three series: Membership Prints; Other Prints; and Duplicate Membership Prints.

The prints are housed by size. However, the listing here is by series and thereunder in the order in which the prints were issued, with inventory and housing information noted under each title. Generally, at least three copies of each print can be found in Series I. Several hundred duplicate prints exist for several of the later, and smaller, membership prints; these duplicates can be found in Series III.

Most prints have the artists' signature engraved in the plate. Prints in this collection were made from paintings by Thomas Cole, William S. Mount, Asher B. Durand, and others. Engravers include James Smillie, Felix O.C. Darley, and Alfred Jones.

Series I. Membership Prints contains copies of prints that were issued by the American Art-Union each year from 1840 to 1851. In addition to prints, members also received several books illustrated by etchings. Two of these, with text by Washington Irving, are found here. This series holds copies of all membership prints issued by the AAU, except for three: "Farmer's Nooning" (1843), "A Sibyl" (1847) and "Dover Plains" (1850). Two books issued to members, "Harvey's American Landscape Scenery" (1844), and "Outlines & Sketches by Washington Allston" (1850), are also lacking. This series also includes several proofs for Thomas Cole's "Voyage of Life—Youth" (1849). Additional copies of some of these can also be found in Series III.

Series II. Other Prints holds five prints that were issued for special fund raising drives, given to honorary secretaries of the organization, or used as frontispieces for the Bulletin of the American Art-Union .

Series III. Duplicate Prints contains 525 duplicates of the small folio prints issued in 1851. These came to the New-York Historical Society with the rest of the Art-Union's archive in 1863. The series includes 321 copies of "Marion Crossing the Peedee," 155 copies of "Mount Washington," 32 copies of "American Harvesting," and 17 copies of "Old '76 and Young '48." All the prints here are also represented in Series I.

Access Restrictions

Open to qualified researchers. Materials in this collection may be stored offsite. For more information on making arrangements to consult them, please visit

Use Restrictions

Taking images of documents from the library collections for reference purposes by using hand-held cameras and in accordance with the library's photography guidelines is encouraged. As an alternative, patrons may request up to 20 images per day from staff.

Application to use images from this collection for publication should be made in writing to: Department of Rights and Reproductions, The New-York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West, New York, NY 10024-5194, Phone: (212) 873-3400 ext. 282.

Copyrights and other proprietary rights may subsist in individuals and entities other than the New-York Historical Society, in which case the patron is responsible for securing permission from those parties. For fuller information about rights and reproductions from N-YHS visit:

Preferred Citation

This collection should be cited as American Art-Union Print Collection, PR 159, Department of Prints, Photographs, and Architectural Collections, The New-York Historical Society.

Location of Materials

Materials in this collection may be stored offsite. For more information on making arrangements to consult them, please visit

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Most of the prints were donated with the AAU's archive in 1863. Additional gifts and purchases date from 1927 to 1953.

Related Material at The New-York Historical Society

The New-York Historical Society Manuscript Department holds the American Art-Union records.

Collection processed by

Jenny Gotwals

About this Guide

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on 2023-08-21 15:47:46 -0400.
Language: Description is in English.

Processing Information

The collection was processed by Jenny Gotwals in 2002. The prints comprising this collection were formerly part of the Printmaker File (PR 58).


New-York Historical Society
New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024