In broad terms, therefore, Dutch tradition lay at the foundation of New York's burgeoning cultural atmosphere in the 1820s and 1830s. And the men who promoted its development were, for the most part, from a plain, mercantile class that roughly equated with that of their Dutch predecessors. Their hopes for a strong national culture were fed by the belief that it was their duty to create a demand for the arts, a situation they acknowledged was hampered initially by the new democracy's need to deal with more pragmatic issues. Only after establishing a government supported by a thriving economy could the nation's citizens begin to devote themselves to the fine arts, a pursuit that would signal the country's attainment of a secure position among older civilized nations. A major component in reaching this goal was the Apollo Association for the Promotion of the Fine Arts in the United States, founded in 1839, and later called the American Art-Union (AA-U) when it was reorganized in 1843.
In brief, the AA-U's aims were to support American artists by purchasing their work and to whet the appetite of the general citizenry for art by offering the chance to win an original painting for the annual five dollar subscription price.9 In addition, prints after selected AA-U purchases would be distributed to all subscribers. What has not been fully explored, however, is that a sizable portion of the AA-U's Committee of Management, which consisted mainly of NewYork businessmen, included collectors of contemporary American art. Of the fifteen men on the committee in 1844, Prosper M. Wetmore, Jonathan Sturges, Charles Leupp, Abraham M. Cozzens, John H. Gourlie, and John P. Ridner can be identified as such, a fact that not only underscores their belief in the country's cultural future, but also highlights the likelihood that they could stand to gain considerably by using the AA-U to promote work by artists represented in their personal collections. Moreover, these men (like the Dutch before them) were members of a plutocracy, possessors of largely self-made fortunes who had achieved social and economic prominence.
Not surprisingly, the AA-U came under attack from artists who (with the major exception of Edmonds) were excluded from its administrative ranks and from cultural idealists who complained that the organization's mode of distributing art (essentially a lottery system) failed to cultivate genuine appreciation for art and, instead, encouraged mediocrity. As one writer put it, the organization's problems could be attributed to "the two or three uneducated tradesmen, who have turned it into a hobby of personal consequence, and are building themselves a throne of patronage in its Committee-room, to which nothing but mediocrity in Art can long be humble enough to kneel."10 In response to such accusations, the AA-U issued a rebuttal in its annual report of 1844, asserting that "any method which will enable the artist to find purchasers for his works, must be considered legitimate enough for him, at least; and will hardly be objected to by those into whose hands the works distributed by the Association may chance to fall." Perhaps surprisingly, the report also justified distributing sometimes "mediocre" art: "Let us not, then, deny these simple delights to those who can enjoy them, lest we send them a work of art for their solace, which, tried by the highest standard of taste, may fall a trifle short of the highest excellence.... Before we can have good works of art, we must feel the need of them.... good taste is of all things the most gradual in its development, and of all pleasures it can with most propriety be said to grow by what it feeds on."11 The paternalistic tone of the report implicitly admits the disparities in the artistic merit of the works offered by the AA-U, a situation underscored by one critic's opinion that Daniel Huntington's Sibyl (Fig. 9), an engraving of which was distributed in 1847, was held up as an antidote to the common or vulgar subjects depicted in other works purchased by the AA-U. 12