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Friday, March 9, 2012

Corinne Plumhoff reminds you why you need to remember Luman Reed

In his 1834 compendium, A History of the Rise and Porgress of the Arts of Design in the United States, art historian William Dunlap addressed the topic of contemporary art collecting in the nation.  Dunlap praised the efforts of those who patronized living American artists rather than buying old masters from Europe.  Having begun collecting art in 1832, Luman Reed’s dedicated efforts over the course of two years from 1832 to 1834 warranted mention by Dunlap in his writings. Dunlap notes, “the collection of Luman Reed, Esq. of Greenwhich-street, already is rich in works of modern art; and his munificent spirit is enriching it daily from the pencils of Cole, Morse, and other prominent artists”.  Dunlap goes further to state that those, like Reed who support local artists were “more entitled to praise than any purchaser of the works of by-gone days”.

Asher B. Durand, Luman Reed, 1835.  Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A self-made businessman, Luman Reed’s ascent to an established and note-worthy art collector presents an intriguing and unique story. This unlikely patron and his humble beginnings stood in contrast to collectors such as Robert Gilmor, Jr. and Daniel Wadsworh whose privileged upbringings certainly provided a different perspective and motivation. The rise of Jacksonian democracy brought forth an emerging, upwardly mobile, middle class.  New wealth materialized in the first half of the 19th century, establishing a citizenry that differed from the old elite of the Federalist period.

Luman Reed introduced a fresh perspective to the American art scene in the years 1832-1834. He routinely expressed genuine interest in contemporary artists such as Thomas Cole, William Sidney Mount, and Asher Durand, offering both financial and moral support. Oftentimes, new collectors, like Reed, proved more willing to listen and receive guidance from the artist, rather than the older elite’s practice of dictating artistic demands. Consequently, Thomas Cole’s budding friendship with Reed proved advantageous in 1833, when Reed agreed to commission Cole’s highly conceptualized series The Course of Empire.  Cole, who desired to pursue historical landscapes, sought funding from many established collectors. Cole believed these paintings would appeal to his federalist patrons but his attempts for support proved fruitless.  Reed’s patronage derived from a sense of patriotism and a true belief that American artists deserved support. These guiding principles laid the foundation of a thoughtful collector who allowed the artist to pursue subjects and styles of their own choice.

The Course of Empire consisted of a five-part series depicting first a nation’s rise to glory and then consequent demise and extinction.  Cole’s subject matter provided a social commentary on the spread of democracy and growth of a nation. Many social and political issues emerged in the mid-nineteenth century in regards to westward expansion, citizenship, and the spread of wealth.  Reed represented a new prosperity that many of the old guard questioned and feared, including Cole.  Thus, Reed’s support truly demonstrates a forward thinking individual, exceptional for his time. Reed’s willingness to appreciate an artist’s perspective as well as maintain an open-mind regarding thematic representation attests to his distinctive character.

This specific example of patronage provides just one instance of the benevolence of Luman Reed.  In a letter written to William Sidney Mount upon the acquisition of the artist’s work Bargaining for a Horse, Reed writes, “this is a new era in the fine arts in this Country, we have native talent and it is coming out as rapidly as necessary. Your picture of the ‘Bargain’ is the wonder and delight of every one that sees it”.  At his death in 1836, Reed’s collection consisted of at least sixty-five works of art. The size of his collection and his steadfast patronage of American artists highlights this truly unique collector ‘s impact on American art and its future patrons.


Craven, Wayne. “Luman Reed: His Collection and Gallery,” American Art Journal, vol. 2, no. 2 (Spring 1980).

Dunlap, William. A History of the Rise and Porgress of the Arts of Design in the United States, vol 2. New York: Dover, 1969. (first published in 1834). Quoted in Wayne Craven, “Luman Reed, Patron: His Collection and Gallery.” The American Art Journal, vol. II, no. 2 (Spring, 1980).

Foshay, Ella A. Mr. Luman Reed’s Picture Gallery: A Pioneer Collection of American Art.  New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1990.

Frakenstein,Wayne. Painter of Rural America: William Sidney Mount, 1807-1868. Washington, DC: International Exhibitions Foundation, 1968. Quoted in Wayne Craven, “Luman Reed, Patron: His Collection and Gallery.” The American Art Journal, vol. II, no. 2 (Spring, 1980).

Pohl, Frances K. Framing America: A Social History of American Art. 2nd Ed.  New York: Thames and Hudson, Inc., 2008.

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