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Martha H. Kennedy, Curator of Popular & Applied Graphic Art, Prints & Photographs Division
Created: June 2018
Last Updated: November 2020
The Prints and Photographs Division holds one of the largest, publicly accessible collections of original illustration art in the nation and the Cabinet of American Illustration represents a key part of these holdings. This treasured collection contains more than 4,000 original drawings and prints by more than 250 American magazine, newspaper, book, and advertising illustrators. Works from the Golden Age of Illustration (ca. 1880-1930) predominate, including examples by such acclaimed masters as Charles Dana Gibson, Elizabeth Shippen Green, John Held, Jr., and Jessie Willcox Smith. Drawings in this collection range in date from as early as 1830 to as recently as 2000, and thus give a sweeping view of the art form as it was practiced before, during, and after its popular peak. The Cabinet represents diverse styles and media and and includes finished artworks as well as sketches, preparatory drawings, and designs related to the publications for which they were created.
The Cabinet of American Illustration was established at the Library of Congress in 1932, largely through the combined efforts of William Patten (1865-1936), art editor of Harper's magazine in the 1880s and 1890s and Leicester Holland (1882-1952), then chief of the Library's Division of Fine Arts. Both recognized the artistic and cultural significance of illustration art. Moved by a sense of urgency, the pair worked as a team to develop a collection, for they realized that opportunities to acquire original drawings from the Golden Age of the art form were waning, as illustrators aged or passed away. In the Librarian’s 1932 annual report, Holland asserted that illustration “was probably not only the most highly developed art in this country but had reached a higher development here than anywhere else in the world.”
With modest but critical support from Holland, Patten acquired on behalf of the Library thousands of original drawings by American illustrators. Through connections he had made with artists, dealers, and publishers during his career, he pursued contributions by artists, their families, collectors and others, along with occasional purchases to form the collection. The project gained credibility outside the Library when the famous art critic Royal Cortissoz praised the men's efforts and encouraged gifts to "an invaluable memorial to some of our most brilliant artists." (In: “American Illustration: A New Cabinet Devoted to It at the Congressional Library” New York Herald Tribune, February 5, 1933)
Within a few years, the Cabinet grew rapidly, eventually numbering 4,000 drawings and prints by over 250 artists. From 1933-1936, the Library mounted exhibitions of newly acquired illustrators’ works, thereby affirming enthusiasm for building the collection and the high esteem in which illustration art was held. (Report of the Librarian of Congress, 1933-1936). Two examples from 1936 included one that featured drawings by Alice Barber Stephens and the other, works by Edward Penfield. The collection's holdings of outstanding works by leading illustrators executed in varied styles and techniques embody the diverse array of genres and subject matter encompassed by the art form during its Golden Age.
Formed largely after the popular peak of illustration, the collection contains an array of impressive original work that represents an important cross section of American art history. A comparable body of drawings could never be re-created today. The art form endures and the Library continues to add to the Cabinet on a regular basis.