FAMOUS ARTIST DIES PENNILESS AND ALL ALONE: The Met Museum’s Fascinating Archive of Artists’ Death Notices

Oh to go behind the scenes at a world class muse­um, to dis­cov­er trea­sures that the pub­lic nev­er sees.

Among the most com­pelling — and unex­pect­ed —  at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art in New York City are a pair of crumb­ing scrap­books, their pages thick with yel­low­ing obit­u­ar­ies and death notices for a wide array of late 19th and ear­ly 20th-cen­tu­ry painters, sculp­tors, and pho­tog­ra­phers.

Some names, like Auguste Rodin or Jules Bre­ton, are still famil­iar to many 21st-cen­tu­ry art lovers.

Oth­ers, like Fran­cis Davis Mil­let, who served as a Union Army drum­mer boy dur­ing the Civ­il War and per­ished on the Titan­ic, were much admired in their day, but have large­ly fad­ed from mem­o­ry.

The vast major­i­ty are requiems of a sort for those who toiled in obscu­ri­ty. They may not have received much atten­tion in life, but the cir­cum­stances of their deaths by sui­cide, mur­der, or bizarre acci­dent had the whiff of the pen­ny dread­ful, a qual­i­ty that could move a lot of news­pa­pers. The deceased’s address­es were pub­lished, along with their names. Any trag­ic detail was sure to be height­ened for effect, the taw­dri­er the bet­ter.

As the Met’s Man­ag­ing Archivist, Jim Moske, who unearthed the scrap­books four years ago while prowl­ing for his­toric mate­r­i­al for the museum’s 150th anniver­sary cel­e­bra­tion, writes in Lit Hub:

Typ­i­cal of the era’s crass tabloid jour­nal­ism, they were craft­ed to wring max­i­mum dra­ma out of mis­for­tune, and to excite and fix the atten­tion of read­ers sus­cep­ti­ble to raw emo­tion­al appeal and voyeurism. Their authors drew upon and rein­forced stereo­types of artists as indi­gent, debauched, obsessed with great­ness, eccen­tric, or suf­fer­ing from men­tal ill­ness.

It took Moske a fair amount of dig­ging to iden­ti­fy the cre­ator of these scrap­books, one Arturo B. de St. M. D’Hervilly.

D’Hervilly spent a decade work­ing in var­i­ous admin­is­tra­tive capac­i­ties before being pro­mot­ed to Assis­tant Cura­tor of Paint­ings.  A ded­i­cat­ed employ­ee and tal­ent­ed artist him­self, D’Hervilly put his cal­li­graph­ic skills to work craft­ing illu­mi­nat­ed man­u­script-style keep­sakes for the fam­i­lies of recent­ly deceased trustees and lock­er room signs.

In a recent lec­ture host­ed by the Vic­to­ri­an Soci­ety of New York, Moske not­ed that D’Hervilly under­stood that the muse­um could use news­pa­pers for self-doc­u­men­ta­tion as well pro­mo­tion.

To that end, the Met main­tained accounts with a num­ber of clip­pings bureaus, media mon­i­tor­ing ser­vices whose young female work­ers pored over hun­dreds of dai­ly news­pa­pers in search of tar­get phras­es and names.

Think of them as an ana­log, paid pre­cur­sor to Google Alerts.

Many of the clip­pings in the scrap­book bear the ini­tials “D’H” or D’Hervilly’s sur­name, scrawled in the same blue cray­on the Nation­al Press Intel­li­gence Com­pa­ny and oth­er clip­pings bureaus used to under­line the tar­get phrase.

Moske the­o­rizes that D’Hervilly may have been using the Met’s account to pur­sue a per­son­al inter­est in col­lect­ing these types of notices:

New­ly pro­mot­ed to curate mas­ter­piece paint­ings, had he giv­en up for good his own artis­tic ambi­tion? Was the com­po­si­tion of these mor­bid tomes a veiled acknowl­edge­ment of the pass­ing away of his cre­ative aspi­ra­tion? Did he iden­ti­fy with the hun­dreds of uncel­e­brat­ed artists whose fates the news clip­pings record­ed in grim detail? Per­haps, instead, his intent was more mun­dane, and com­pil­ing them was an expe­di­ent for col­lect­ing use­ful bio­graph­i­cal data as he cat­a­logued pic­tures in the Met col­lec­tion that were made by recent­ly deceased artists.

Many of the hun­dreds of clip­pings he pre­served appear to be the only traces remain­ing of these artists’ cre­ative exis­tence on this earth.

After D’Hervilly suf­fered a fatal heart attack while get­ting ready to leave for work on the morn­ing April 7, 1919, his col­leagues took over his pet project, adding to the scrap­books for anoth­er next ten years.

In research­ing the scrap­books’ author’s life, Moske was able to truf­fle up scant evi­dence of D’Hervilly’s extracur­ric­u­lar cre­ative out­put — just one paint­ing in a cat­a­logue of an 1887 Nation­al Acad­e­my of Design exhi­bi­tion — but a 1919 clip­ping, duti­ful­ly past­ed (posthu­mous­ly, of course) into one of the scrap­books, iden­ti­fied the long­time Met employ­ee as a “SLAVE OF DUTY AT ART MUSEUM”, who nev­er took time off for hol­i­days or even lun­cheon, pre­fer­ring to eat at his desk.

via Lit Hub

Relat­ed Con­tent 

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An Unbe­liev­ably Detailed, Hand-Drawn Map Lets You Explore the Rich Col­lec­tions of the Met Muse­um

Down­load 584 Free Art Books from The Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art

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- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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