Before The Frick Collection existed, The Lenox Library stood in its place along Fifth Avenue between 70th and 71st Streets in New York City. Built to house and publicly display the private collection of James Lenox (1800–1880), a wealthy bibliophile and art collector, The Lenox Library was one of the first of its type in America (Stevens, 144). Unlike other public institutions, The Lenox Library was unique in its combination of a research library and art venue. Lenox was inspired by The British Museum, which at the time of the founding of The Lenox Library, housed a library and art collection in one building for the public (The Lenox Library: The Library as Museum). The Lenox Library opened its doors in 1877 and was designed by the architect Richard Morris Hunt (1827–1895). For more information about the design and construction of the building, see the New York Art Resources Consortium (NYARC) post Before The Frick: Remembering The Lenox Library.
New York Public Library Archives, The New York Public Library. "Lenox Library (1910)" The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1910.
Although admission was free, entry to the art galleries required visitors to request advance tickets by mail. The hours of the galleries varied over the years. In 1879, they were open Mondays and Fridays from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. In 1882, the hours of the galleries were expanded to three days a week; Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. In 1885, they were open Tuesday through Friday from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. 1892 saw the hours expanded to Monday through Saturday 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and the requirement to request tickets by post was dropped.
The art galleries contained works from a wide span of artists; such as Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902), Charles Robert Leslie (1794–1859), Samuel Morse (1791–1872), Henry Inman (1801–1846), Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900), and Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851). Lenox often commissioned contemporary artists to create works or bought art directly from them. Lenox wrote to Leslie (see above) tasking him with traveling to the studio of Turner (see above) and buying one of his paintings. He purchased Staffa, Fingal's Cave on behalf of Lenox in 1845, and it was the first Turner painting to cross the Atlantic Ocean (Turner at East 70th Street before The Frick Collection). Lenox’s correspondence with both Leslie and Turner is preserved in the Manuscript Division of the New York Public Library (NYPL) as part of the Lenox Family Papers.
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. "The Lenox Library." The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1893.
The art galleries, comprised of spaces designated specifically for painting or sculpture, were not set up like a typical museum. As a collector, Lenox arranged the galleries based on his preferences. In 1879, a galleries guide was available for purchase at a cost of 15 cents, which listed the title, artist, and other details about the works on view. The guide was likely popular as updated versions were printed in 1882, 1885, and 1892. At the time of the opening of The Lenox Library, the galleries contained 145 paintings, which increased to 148 by 1892. Copies of the galleries guide can be viewed online through the Hathi Trust or in person at the Frick. In 1891, an additional space called The Robert L. Stuart Gallery was opened to display 242 paintings left to The Lenox Library by Mary Stuart (1815–1891), the widow of Robert L. Stuart (1810–1879). A copy of the Stuart Gallery guide can be viewed through the Internet Archive.
Although The Lenox Library was demolished in 1912, it continued to shape New York City. Most importantly, its holdings assisted in forming the collections of NYPL. Similar to The Lenox Library, NYPL published a guide to its art galleries that is available through the Internet Archive. Sadly, most of the art from Lenox’s collection did not remain together. NYPL auctioned many of the artworks, which were acquired by museums and private collectors. An example is the aforementioned Staffa, Fingal’s Cave, which is now owned by the Yale Center for British Art.
To learn more about NYARC and The Lenox Library visit the Frick Art Reference Library for Open House New York Weekend this October.
Caroline Chang, Intern, Frick Art Reference Library
The Lenox Library: The Library as Museum. Web. 17 July 2017.
Stevens, Henry. Recollections of James Lenox and the Formation of His Library. New York: New York Public Library, 1951. Print.
Bury, Stephen J. Turner at East 70th Street before The Frick Collection. Web. 17 July 2017.