Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

The Right Stuff over 150 Years, the Mercantile Library Has Acquired a Grand Collection of Books, Newspapers, Works of Art and Ephemera

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

The Right Stuff over 150 Years, the Mercantile Library Has Acquired a Grand Collection of Books, Newspapers, Works of Art and Ephemera

Article excerpt

IF YOU found yourself in St. Louis a century and a half ago with something valuable in your possession - something other than a bundle of beaver pelts or gold or a team of horses - the best place for its safekeeping was the Mercantile Library Association.

The library, an institution of incredible historic and cultural value to the city, is celebrating its 150th birthday this year.

Nowadays, it is the dignified but nonetheless welcoming custodian of a grand and eclectic collection of books, works of art, an entire newspaper morgue and ephemera - in plain English, stuff. But in the 19th century, when St. Louis was an outpost of rather sniffy Frenchness, a hangout for stab-and-grab mountain men and river rats and home to genuinely cultivated and bookish burghers, the Mercantile Library was the cultural safe house. There was no public library then, no art museum, no history museum. By intent and by default, the library came to be custodian of many treasures, simply because it was there. As part of its sesquicentennial observance, the library is throwing various birthday celebrations, some for fun and fund-raising purposes, others more scholarly. One coming up soon fits the latter description, and it focuses attention on one of the most valuable groups of the Mercantile Library's possessions. First thing Friday morning, Sept. 27, the library will welcome guests to a symposium on art of the American West. A number of recognized scholars of the period are coming to town. (You and I can go too - the s ymposium is open to the public.) When you get off the elevator on the sixth floor of the library's building at 510 Locust Street, a right turn takes you into the Issue Room, and a left leads you into the light-filled Reading Room. Four portraits hung in one or the other of those rooms forever, it seemed. They had become like an old sweater: familiar, cherished, a little ratty, with origins unclear but generally accepted as the work of this maiden aunt rather than that second cousin. They portray Native Americans. Everybody called them the Catlin portraits, and that was that. George Catlin was a famous and important painter of Western subjects, and the surname is a familiar one in St. Louis for artistic and landholding reasons. Until the art of the American West began to come into its own 25 years ago or so, no one questioned the attribution of the paintings to the celebrated Catlin because - if you want to know the truth - nobody much cared one way or the other, unless he or she were a scholar of the period, and scholars of that period didn't get much of anyone's attention. John Neal Hoover, who has been on the library's staff 13 years and now serves graciously and capably as chief librarian and acting director, was suspicious of the attribution of the four Indian portraits to Catlin. "I don't want to take credit for the discovery," Hoover said the other day. However, the more Hoover looked at the visual evidence of what appeared before him in the paintings, and the more he read about the pictures in the library archives, the more he began to suspect that the Catlin attribution was wrong. It was not as if anyone at the library was trying to pull a fast one. Clarence Miller ran the library with distinction from 1941 to 1958, and had worked there from the turn of the century. He was steeped in the literature of America and the history of the library. Miller said the pictures were by Catlin and that they'd been given to the library by the John How, an art fancier who was twice mayor of 19th-century St. Louis. "In 1988," Hoover said, "two of the portraits were lent for an exhibition. In putting out notes about the paintings it seemed to me that the attribution to Catlin in the files was not a certainty. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.