Private art collectors have always catalogued their holdings. But the extremely wealthy art collectors at the beginning of the 20th century made their catalogues into veritable works of art. As one of the founding benefactors of the National Gallery, Joseph Widener provided the museum with half its Rembrandts, along with other old masters. But he also donated one of its lesser-known treasures: his collection of these early private art catalogues.
The catalogues were sumptuous oversize volumes. To make them, the collectors commissioned artists to make engravings of the collectors' holdings. They hired prominent art scholars to write essays about the works, then hired printers to print the essays and bookbinders to gather the words and pictures between gilded and tooled leather covers. The most lavish of the catalogues, commissioned by J. Pierpont Morgan, boasted hand-colored paintings of paintings on vellum; his leather volumes were fitted with silver or vermeil clasps and were even encrusted with the occasional jewel. (In the spirit of competition, "poor" collectors sometimes got together to produce a volume, one of which, "Noteworthy Paintings in American Private Collections," is part of Widener's bequest.)
What did the collectors do with the catalogues? They gave them out to family and friends and to other collectors, which is how the National Gallery came to possess not only Widener's 10 volumes of engravings of his very famous paintings but also his copies of Morgan's elaborate catalogues of his religious objects, furniture and miniatures (shown is the catalogue version of Morgan's miniature of Louis XVII, the so-called Lost Dauphin, who died in prison after the French Revolution). Adults may view the catalogues in the gallery's library by appointment (call 202-842-6511).