NEW YORK — Before there was a Metropolitan Museum of Art or a Central Park or a New York Times, when the city had a population of 300,000 and the Trinity Church steeple was New York's tallest building, the Knoedler Gallery was selling fine art to the few Americans who had taste and bankbooks to appreciate it. Founded in 1846, Knoedler & Co. - the oldest art gallery in New York - recently celebrated its 150th anniversary with an exhibition that traces its role in American social and aesthetic history.
The show's curator, art historian Sam Hunter, professor emeritus at Princeton University (N.J.), calls Knoedler "a driving force in the evolution of the art world in America." He notes the gallery's significant role in "nurturing American artists and collectors," as well as in "the establishment of New York as the center of the art world."
"It's hard to think of anything in American lasting 150 years," says J. Carter Brown, chairman of the all-arts cable network Ovation. The anniversary exhibit, according to Mr. Brown, "traces the trajectory of an object as it makes its way from the easel to the museum to the public." He should know, for the institution he formerly directed, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, was a major beneficiary of Knoedler's dealings.
Brown hailed "a wonderful moment" in the gallery's history when "Knoedler captured the prize." He is referring to 1931, when the Soviet Union was starved for hard cash, and sold 25 masterpieces from the Hermitage Museum to Knoedler for $12 million. Andrew Mellon then acquired and later donated most of the works to the National Gallery.
The paintings - jewels of the core collection - include old masters like Botticelli, Raphael, and Rembrandt. The works, Mr. Hunter says, "do nothing less than define our national cultural heritage."
In fact, seven of the 12 Vermeers and more than 150 Czanne oils in American collections were sold by Knoedler. More than 40 percent of works in the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., and 65 percent of the Frick Collection here are recorded in Knoedler ledgers.
Knoedler walked a fine line between commerce and culture. As a mark of good business sense, it provided Salon paintings in vogue around the turn of the century to wealthy clients. Yet, at a time when art was considered a luxury beyond most people's ken, it championed up-and-coming American artists like Winslow Homer, Mary Cassatt, and John Singer Sargent.
On display at the recent exhibit were loans from 17 museums like the Metropolitan and National Gallery - a homecoming of sorts, for these works all passed through Knoedler on the way to public collections. It boggles the mind to think how many zeros would be on the price list if the works were for sale.
A highlight is John Singleton Copley's "Watson and the Shark" (1782). In a theatrical tableau that rivals "Jaws," sailors attempt to save a drowning man from a lunging shark. A late portrait by Thomas Eakins, "Music" (1904), frames a violinist in chiaroscuro.
Manet's portrait "The Plum" (c. 1877); an early Degas "Portrait of Ren de Gas (1855); Renoir's "Confidences" (c. 1875); and Pissarro's "Springtime in Eragny" (1886) show how Knoedler customers enriched American collections with Impressionist art.
"At a time when portraiture was basically the point of art in America, the gallery was a pioneer in bringing the best of Europe to America," says Stephen Polcari, New York director of the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art. "Instead of having to go abroad to see sophisticated paintings, Knoedler brought art education here."
Knoedler helped American culture mature into a major international force in art. Today Knoedler represents blue-chip contemporary artists like Helen Frankenthaler and Frank Stella. With the breadth and depth of the American art scene, no single gallery dominates. And, with knowledgeable collections, educating American taste is no longer a priority.
"Art galleries have always been moneymaking propositions," Mr. Polcari says. "Some dealers were concerned with a sense of mission more than commercialism. From its beginning, Knoedler did both."