During the antebellum period, Americans generally acquired prints for decorative purposes rather than for their intrinsic qualities. Yet an interest in prints for their own sake had begun to develop, and Marsh was an early and active participant in the growth of print collecting and connoisseurship in the United States. Before 1850 he had acquired more than a thousand European engravings and etchings and many books about art. His collection included Old Master prints—original works by Dürer, Rembrandt, and other European artists of the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries—as well as editions of Hogarth’s engravings, engraved subjects from Shakespeare, and numerous engravings after paintings and sculpture. Compilations of works in the Louvre, such as the Musée Napoléon and the Musée Royal, and other gallery publications from Dresden, Florence, and Versailles provided engraved copies of important European artworks, and Marsh, like other print collectors, acquired these volumes as well as single-sheet impressions.
No document survives to identify the individual prints acquired by the Smithsonian, and Marsh did not mark his prints or books as some collectors did. His original sales agreement listed most of the bound volumes by title, but the prints were described only as portfolios:
- 1 Portfolio, the works of [Albrecht] Dürer: 20 engravings on copper and 2 on iron by Dürer’s own hand and among them most of his best & rarest works; about 60 fine copies on copper including the famous 17 by Marc Antonio, 13 different portraits of Dürer, some very fine, and a large number of wood cuts engraved by Dürer or under his inspection.
- 1 Portfolio (bound) with 200 eng[ravings] & etchings by Claude Lorraine, Hollar, Rembrandt, Bega, & others
- 1 Portfolio (bound) of (small) engravings (above 100) by the old German masters, many of great rarity and exquisite beauty
- 1 Portfolio (bound) of engravings chiefly by the old Italian masters, many extremely rare
- 1 Portfolio (bound) of fine portraits
- 4 Portfolios of different sizes of sheet Eng[raving]s
- 13 Framed engravings
Fortunately invoices and letters from dealers survive among the Marsh Papers in Special Collections at the University of Vermont Libraries. These records have been helpful as we work to identify the Marsh prints that remain at the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress. Without a title list it is difficult to establish exactly what the collection included, and, inevitably, there have been losses over time. Marsh’s early German album was returned from the Library of Congress to the Smithsonian in 1888, and his Rembrandt etchings came back with the other prints from the Corcoran in 1896. We believe that the early Italian portfolio was divided between the two institutions, but connecting individual prints to Marsh’s ownership is rather problematic after so many years. It is unclear how many Rembrandt prints were originally included; only about a dozen remain at the Smithsonian. Other artists he named in the sales agreement such as Hollar and Bega are no longer identified with Marsh in either institution.
Around the time Marsh’s prints were returned from the Corcoran, the Smithsonian acquired another collection of European engravings from the widow of artist John Cranch (1807–1891). Both collections were stored in The Castle, but following the death of Assistant Secretary G. B. Goode in 1896 and the retirement and subsequent death of curator S. R. Koehler in 1900, there was no one actively working with the print collection. The two groups of prints became mingled and their origins were confused. For some prints it may be impossible to determine from which collection they came, and provenance attributions between the two collectors continue to be evaluated, as noted in some of the object records below.
Another collector, John Varden, acquired three Dürer woodcuts for his Washington Museum in the 1830s. These prints came to the Smithsonian about 1860 with Varden’s Museum when the collections were transferred from the National Institute, then housed in the Patent Office. Presumably they went to the Library of Congress after the 1865 fire and would have been part of the Smithsonian Deposit. When Koehler and Goode began to search for Marsh’s prints at the Library of Congress, three Dürer woodcuts were retrieved. Their separation from the portfolio of other Dürer prints suggests that these three may have originated with Varden rather than with Marsh, but again, we may never be absolutely certain about their source.
Marsh acquired many English prints and books from the New York booksellers Bartlett & Welford. He bought the large folio editions of Boydell’s Shakspeare [sic] Gallery and The Houghton Gallery, a set of plates engraved after the paintings now in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, once owned by the Walpole family at Houghton Hall in Norfolk, England. These volumes included proof states and final prints but no text. The Shakespeare set is at the Library of Congress; the two Houghton Gallery folios were returned to the Smithsonian in 1888.
The engravings in the Houghton Gallery volumes were mounted individually on larger sheets for binding. Pencil notations on the mounting pages indicate which prints were removed. Koehler used some for loans and permanent exhibition beginning in 1888, and others were framed in 1894 and hung in The Castle. Marsh may have removed some of his favorites, as thirteen framed (but untitled) prints were included on his original sales list; one was noted as from the Houghton Gallery.
Another important resource in New York was Felix Berteau’s French and Foreign-Language Bookstore. Berteau used his foreign contacts to supply Marsh with many of his best European prints and reference sources. Marsh also acquired the art catalogs published by the Leipzig firm of Rudolph Weigel, which listed an impressive range of works on paper and books both old and new. Marsh used these catalogs to determine what prints to buy, and Berteau then sent orders abroad on his behalf. These purchases included prints by Callot, Drevet, Dürer, Nanteuil, Ostade, Rembrandt, and Wille, among many others. Marsh especially valued his copy of La Calcografia (Engraving), an 1830 publication by Italian engraver Giuseppe Longhi, which included a list of some two hundred prints recommended to form the basis of a fine collection.
In 1840 Marsh acquired A. M. Perrot’s Manuel du graveur (Engraver’s manual), perhaps prompted by a review of the book that appeared in the North American Review, a Boston literary magazine. The book included technical information together with history and commentaries on individual engravers and their characteristic traits. It may have inspired his choices for future acquisitions. Its discussion of illustrated books and prints, both Old Masters and newly issued works, as well as the growing body of print reference literature encapsulated the cultural context in which Marsh collected.
Marsh’s surviving invoices and the colloquial tone of his correspondence offer an unusually vivid picture of an American collector struggling to complete his want lists from afar. His great love of art comes through again and again in his letters, even though he had to ask himself, well before he was forced to sell the collection, “whether a strong passion for art, without the means of often gratifying it, is a blessing or a curse.” As this comment in an 1847 letter to the sculptor Hiram Powers suggests, Marsh’s always limited finances did not permit him to reassemble the collection in his later years, even though he was living in Europe, much closer to the sources of art.