Started in 1871 as an artist sketch club, the Salmagundi Club continues to operate out of the last surviving lower Fifth Avenue brownstone in Manhattan. On the walls of the 1850s building’s second floor library and in the hallway alongside its sturdy wooden staircase are around 120 artist palettes. Some date back to the 19th-century, and together they represent the largest collection of American artist palettes in the country.
There’s some debate on the origin of the club’s name, with the word “salmagundi” coming from the writing of Washington Irving, meaning a mix of different ingredients. The library is open to both members and the public by appointment, and was established in the 19th century by and for artists. “It represents what artists wanted to know and that’s why we have so much about geography and illustrative books, back when illustrative books were rare,” Barbara A. Genco, who leads the Salmagundi Club library committee, told Hyperallergic.
In a way, the palettes are part of this perspective, revealing in their remains of paint and pigments something of the artists’ techniques. Some of the palettes at the Salmagundi Club are demonstration pieces, such as American impressionist William Merritt Chase who drew a few lines of representative color and signed his name, or Long Island landscape artist Charles Henry Miller who painted a Long Island mill. Others are working palettes, some from prominent names, like still-life artist Emil Carlsen or Thomas Dewing, whose palette has a cool gradient of colors not dissimilar from his society lady portraits. Others are more obscure, such as John Henry Dolph, who specialized in paintings of dogs and cats. The majority of palettes came in through the collection of Harry Watrous, who was the first secretary and later the director of the National Academy of Design.
As the wood boards cracked over time and their colors blackened with dust and grime, it was the demonstration paintings that helped save the collection, although there are still palettes in need of repair after their decades on the wall. Conservator Alexander Katlan, who volunteered to clean them, wrote in the 2011 publication The Palette Reveals the Artist: The Grumbacher Artist Palette Collection and the Salmagundi Club Palette Collection:
The collection was basically ignored for decades, just as other museums and art organizations ignored their own collections. Artist tools, palettes, and other artist implements were not considered valuable by the public or by the museum community in general. […] At a time when funds were scarce, the palette collection of the Salmagundi Club suffered from benign neglect. The attitude towards the palette collection changed when it was discovered a couple of years ago that some palettes in the Club’s collection actually had paintings on them when most of them were either working or demonstration palettes.
Artist palettes are preserved around the world, as demonstrated by projects like Matthias Schaller’s photographs of famous 19th-century European artist palettes currently on view with the Fondazione Giorgio Cini in Venice, Italy. The concentration and diversity of the palettes is what makes the Salmagundi collection so special, as well as its focus on American artists as most palette collections established in the 19th and 20th century were focused on Europe. Arranged on hooks up above the bookshelves, in shapes both rectangular and oblong, some have thumb holes and others a continuous teardrop shape. By the front door separate from the others are two in glass cases, one by landscape artists J. Francis Murphy and another by George Inness, both paired with their brushes. Charles Henry Dorr wrote in 1922 for Arts and Decoration on the occasion of the club’s 50th anniversary: “What memories of woodlawn landscape aglow with departing rays of sunlight, scenes of verdant springtime, and the hills in autumnal beauty are recalled by the two palettes of George Inness and John Francis Murphy, treasured mementos of these artists now in possession of the Salmagundi Club!”
While the palette is an increasingly arcane artist tool, it was for centuries the preparatory space for painters. The Salmagundi Club Palette Collection is an overlooked New York City resource for exploring this history, where from the landscape artists Inness and Murphy to all the other American artist names assembled are these memories embedded in the brushstrokes, fingerprints pressed into long dried paint, and accumulated in color.
The Salmagundi Palette Collection is on view in the library of the Salmagundi Club (47 Fifth Avenue, Greenwich Village, Manhattan).