Abstract: A Market for Specialties: Selling Art in Nineteenth-Century America

Caitlin Rosenthal


Today, the financial structure of elite art galleries is simple and remarkably consistent. Galleries sell work on consignment, taking a fifty percent commission. In return for this commission and exclusivity, they promote their artists, putting on individual exhibitions and attracting a network of purchasers. This structure, sometimes called the "dealer-critic system," emerged in nineteenth-century Paris, then the center of the art world. However, the triumph of this model was not inevitable. In nineteenth-century America, still at the periphery of the arts, a variety of organizations sold and funded visual art in different ways. These firms—many of which were hybrid public/private, business/community spaces—creatively encouraged the arts, often failing, but sometimes turning a profit along the way. This paper illuminates the incredible variety of models for the sale of art, focusing in particular on the dazzling but short-lived success of the American Art-Union. Founded in 1839, the Art-Union used a lottery to fund the purchase and distribution of paintings. At its peak in 1849, it advertised a distribution of 1,000 "works of art" to more than 18,000 subscribers. This brief dominance and the production it encouraged reveal the potential for differently structured art markets to stimulate diverse styles of art.