The Samuel Putnam Avery Papers

Watson Library owns the Samuel Putnam Avery Papers, a collection which consists of autograph letters, sketches, two memorial albums, a scrapbook of engravings, and other types of documents.  Born in New York City, Samuel Putnam Avery (1822-1904) was an art dealer, rare book and print collector, and wood engraver.  He was a founder and lifelong trustee of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Avery was also a keen collector of rare books, fine bindings, and nineteenth-century prints.  He was seminal in the establishment of a separate print room at the New York Public Library in 1900 and founded the Avery Architectural Library at Columbia University in 1890.

Avery’s work as an art dealer included the commissioning and collecting of American paintings, the sale of engravings, and the management of an art gallery that imported modern European art.  Our collection includes several letters sent to Avery from American artists, including James McNeill Whistler, John Trumbull, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Winslow Homer, Mary Cassatt, William Merritt Chase, Frederic Edwin Church, Jasper Francis Cropsey, Lockwood de Forest, Eastman Johnson, John La Farge, Asher B. Durand, and Charles Willson Peale.  In a letter from Frederic Edwin Church dated 1860, Church tells Avery that he has a proof of the “Andes” plate in its advancing state, referring to the painting now at The Museum known as Heart of the Andes.  Church ends his letter by writing, “I am no judge of such matters, but I think it is great in promise.”

F.E. Church letter to Samuel P. Avery, 1860 Nov. 21

F.E. Church letter to Samuel P. Avery

In 1867, Avery moved to Paris to assist with the Universal Exhibition and was thus put into contact with various French and German artists, including Ludwig Knaus, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Jules Breton, Jean-Léon Gérôme, and Ernest Meissonier.  In addition, in the 1870s, Avery took annual trips to Europe during which time he commissioned art for clients such as William Henry Vanderbilt, James Jerome Hill, William Wilson Corcoran, and Edwin Denison Morgan.  Our collection includes several documents reflecting Avery’s role as a dealer of European art, such as this 1874 receipt from Bouguereau acknowledging payment of 22,500 francs by Avery for Bouguereau’s painting, La Charité, exhibited at the Salon of 1874.

Receipt from William Bouguereau

Receipt from William Bouguereau

Our collection also includes two memorial albums which consist of illustrated autograph letters, sketches, receipts, and calling cards sent to Avery from prominent nineteenth-century painters, printmakers, and art historians, as well as condolence letters written to his family on the event of Avery’s death in 1904.  Below is a sketch and letter sent to Avery from Bouguereau dated 1874.


Bouguereau sketch


Bouguereau letter dated 1874

Our collection of Samuel Putnam Avery Papers also contains a scrapbook of sixty-one print proofs and commercial wood engravings by Avery, including book and magazine illustrations such as this one depicting life in New York.


Magazine illustration

It also includes advertisements like the following for the sale of family lots at the New York Bay Cemetery.



The scrapbook is bound in full red straight-grain morocco tooled in blind and gold, and the engravings are mounted on forty-eight leaves of colored paper.

This material can be found in both the Manuscripts and Rare Books in The Metropolitan Museum of Art Libraries collections.