This post is written by Joe Festa, Manuscript Reference Librarian.
Mural artist Edwin Howland Blashfield, born in Brooklyn in 1848, is perhaps best known for adorning the dome of the Library of Congress Main Reading Room in Washington, DC. His work can be characterized by his formal European apprenticeship in the classical arts, which greatly informed his aesthetic and contributed to his success during the American Gilded Age.
In 1867, Blashfield left New York to study under artist Leon Bonnat, who ran an open, independent studio in France. A large part of his classical training included drawing directly from life, and as such, the artist traveled extensively throughout France, Italy, and elsewhere to visit important cultural institutions and civic monuments.
The artist documented his travels at length in scrapbooks, short notes, and memoirs, which are held within the Edwin Howland Blashfield Papers here at New-York Historical Society. These volumes serve as an excellent physical example of the time-honored way many artists, both past and present, work to perfect their craft.
In an open letter published in The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine in February of 1889, Blashfield reflected on how the French painter and sculptor Jean-Leon Gerome mentored him and influenced his artistic approach. In it, Blashfield recalls Gerome instructing him to “surround yourself with everything you can, – casts, photographs, terra-cottas, vase paintings – and look at them constantly with all your might.”
Placing the quote alongside Blashfield’s scrapbooks and travel writings provides unique context for the artist’s fastidious note-taking. By shedding light on the rigorous studies of a nascent artist, these volumes underscore how important close observation, replication of nature, and strong visual analysis skills are to classical arts education. Moreover, they broaden our understanding of how an artist working at the turn of the 20th century might incorporate record keeping and a collection of visual references into his or her practice.
Blashfield returned to Manhattan after he completed his apprenticeship in 1880. The artist’s deep appreciation for Europe and the classics remained an active and central part throughout his career, and he continued to travel abroad, compiling his experiences into the 20th century.