The Bryan Gallery: A First for New York
by Rebecca Affenita
Thomas Jefferson Bryan
In 1853 a man by the name of Thomas Jefferson Bryan opened The Bryan Gallery of Christian Art in New York City, offering New Yorkers a chance to gain insight into a world of art that had previously been unavailable in the United States. His intention was to build an educational resource for the American public and show the beauty and complexity of the art he had amassed on his travel in Europe. Bryan began collecting at an early age and acquired nearly four hundred works of art by the time he died in 1870.
When Thomas Jefferson Bryan was just twenty-one years old he ventured from his home in New York to France to begin his life’s work of collecting art. For the next thirty years Bryan stayed in Paris buying Renaissance objects and collecting late medieval artwork, particularly paintings, as well as later American art. Bryan seemed to genuinely love and care for his collection. He was so passionate about his acquisitions that he personally took to cleaning and supervising the storage of the art. Bryan’s appreciated not only the aesthetics of medieval and Renaissance art, he also understood and appreciated the history behind the works he collected. The wealth of knowledge he gained from studying at Harvard as well as the worldly knowledge he acquired from traveling to Europe earned Bryan a reputation for good taste. Thomas Jefferson Bryan wanted to spread his knowledge and good taste of medieval and Renaissance art to the American public. Although it may have been easier to keep his artwork to himself, Bryan wanted to make his collection available to anyone who was interested. Upon returning to the United States in 1852 after nearly thirty years in Paris, Bryan decided to assemble his collection into a gallery for public viewing.
The Bryan Gallery of Christian Art
A small fee of twenty five cents was all that was charged for visitors to view the Bryan Gallery of Christian Art. In 1853 the second floor of a building located on Broadway and 13th street in New York City, the gallery opened its doors for the first time. This gallery was an enormous display of all of Bryan’s life work. He was so proud and protective over his collection that he did not hire any employees. Instead, Bryan took care of the day to day operations of the gallery himself.
This collection featured hundreds of works by European and American artists. Although the gallery was titled The Bryan Gallery of Christian Art, not all of the works displayed were tied to religion. For instance, Bryan had Triumph of Julius Caesar, a painting by Dello which celebrated the successes of Julius Caesar. A large share of the pieces, however, were Christian in theme. Among the most famous items displayed were Nardo di Cione’s Madonna and Child with Saints painted in Florence around 1350 (now featured at the Brooklyn Museum 1995.2) and works by Taddeo Gaddi such as Madonna and Child Enthroned with Ten Saints: Maestà (Florence, 1330)(New York Historical Society 1867.375).
Having such valuable pieces lead to trouble for Bryan. Over the course of the exhibition six of his paintings were stolen. Although one would think Bryan would outraged, he was surprisingly happy about the robberies. The Bryan Gallery of Christian Art was not doing as well as Bryan had hoped and was severely underappreciated by the American public. These robberies gave Bryan hope that people were finally starting to welcome this foreign art.
Bryan was so eager to promote his collection that he had it published in a catalog titled Companion to the Bryan Gallery of Christian Art written by Richard Grant White in 1853. This book listed all of the works displayed in Bryan’s gallery along with short descriptions of the art and the creator. It provides sufficient information for the reader to understand the basics of the art shown, yet it encourages the reader to go look at the art themselves. For instance, the preface of this catalogue evokes curiosity about the collection by including remarks such as “This peculiarity of the Collection is almost of equal importance with the intrinsic beauty and excellence of a large portion of the works which compose it.” The vocabulary used in this book purposely leaves the reader curious about what the collection has to offer, especially since this gallery was one of the first of its kind.
Exhibiting such a wide range of European art for public viewing was a first for New York. Unfortunately, the public did not appreciate the gallery as much as Bryan had hoped they would. In 1867 Bryan decided to loan nearly three hundred and eighty works of art to the New York Historical Society. By placing his prized possessions in the hands of this society, Bryan was letting go of his mission to spark a public interest in the world of European art while simultaneously preserving his collection and the history attached to it. Although it did not receive the admiration it deserved while it was open, the Bryan Gallery of Christian Art a small stepping stone for European art in America.
Bryan’s decision to loan his art the New York Historical Society in 1867 actually benefited his mission in the long run. In 1870 Bryan died while journeying home to the United States from Europe. In typical circumstances, in the aftermath of a sudden death like this, heirs would quickly sell off an art collection. But in the case of Bryan’s holdings, the New York Historical Society was able to keep the collection intact. Sadly, over time the Society had to sell pieces of the collection in order to raise money. Only about forty of the works from Bryan’s original gallery remain today in the New York Historical Society’s possession. Among those returned to the original collection is the Taddeo Gaddi’s Madonna and Child Enthroned with Ten Saints: Maestà (early 1330s), which was recently returned to New York after being loaned to the Getty and the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, for their exhibition Florence at the Dawn of the Renaissance: Painting and Illumination, 1300-1350. The famous Madonna and Child with Saints by Nardo di Cione, unfortunately for the preservation of the collection, was sold by the New York Historical Society in 1995 to the Brooklyn Museum for $340,000.
Funding has become an enormous issue for the New York Historical Society, forcing it to sell many of its prized works. The society was granted permission by the Attorney General to sell as much of the collection as they pleased. Many critics were outraged by this due to the importance of not only the art itself, but also what it stood for. The Bryan Gallery of Christian Art was a giant step forward in for museums and European art in the United States of America. Dismantling the collection diminished the symbolic importance of the gallery as a whole.
The Bryan Gallery of Christian Art led the way for the museums that exhibit medieval art in New York and America more broadly today. Thanks to Thomas Jefferson Bryan’s passion, the United States has been fortunate enough to have beautiful, historical works for the public to see and learn from. His collection laid the foundations for the movement of foreign art not only into the United States of America, but into the eyes of the American public.
"Exhibitions "Maestà": Gaddi's Triptych Reunited." New-York Historical Society. December 11, 2015. https://www.nyhistory.org/exhibitions/maest%C3%A0-gaddis-triptych-reunited.
Johnson, Ken. "A Little Piece of a Lost Legacy." New York Times, Late Edition (East Coast) ed., Jan 01 2016, ProQuest. Web.
Lynes, Russell. The Tastemakers. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1983: 42-44
McGill, Douglas C. "Criticism Moves Historical Society, a Little." The New York Times. July 25, 1988. https://www.nytimes.com/1988/07/25/arts/criticism-moves-historical-society-a-little.html.
Olson, Roberta J. "A Selection of European Paintings and Objects." Art & Architecture Complete 167, no. 1 (January 01, 2005): 185-86.
Tully, Judd. “Museums Preempt Auction Sales; By Matching Bids, 2 Institutions Get Coveted Paintings.” The Washington Post, 20 Jan. 1995
White, Richard Grant. Companion to the Bryan Gallery of Christian Art: Containing Critical Description of the Pictures, and Biographical Sketches of the Painters. New York: Baker, Godwin &, 1853: i, iv