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The Wedding Dance Pieter Bruegel the Elder
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The Wedding Dance (30.374) — Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Annual Exhibition of American Art:
The Foundation of a Collection

In the early twentieth century, the Detroit Institute of Arts followed other leading American art museums and academies, such as the National Academy of Design, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago, in the organization of an Annual Exhibition of American Art. Beginning in 1915, the DIA exhibited works by contemporary American artists each year until 1938, with a five-year absence due to the Great Depression. The project was spearheaded by the DIA's first curator of American art, Clyde H. Burroughs (1882–1973), who wanted to use the Annual to build the DIA's collection, especially in the areas of late American impressionism and the Ashcan School.

Burroughs helped develop a solid foundation for one of the most important paintings collection in the country.


Burroughs understood that it was paramount to get the community interested in this exhibition for its success and survival. In doing so, Burroughs hoped to attract large audiences; to develop awareness in contemporary American art trends; and to encourage area collectors to buy these new works. He used the exhibition as an educational tool in order to create an environment in which artists would be eager to send their best work. Burroughs not only wanted the DIA to purchase paintings from the Annual, but also to place works in Detroit area collections that might eventually be given to the museum.1

The most important purchase made out of the first Annual was Frank Benson's (1862–1951) On Lookout Hill by the Detroit Athletic Club. Julia E. Peck (1875–1971), an artist, collector, and museum patron, who had residences in both Port Huron, Michigan and New York, purchased several paintings from the Annual, including Robert Spencer's (1879–1931) On the Canal, New Hope, which was gifted outright to the museum. She also purchased Randall Davey's (1887–1964) Girl in Black and George Luks's (1867–1933) Woman and Macaws, which were both gifted to the DIA in 1947. In addition to the purchases made within the community, Burroughs in some cases used the Annual to highlight local collectors' material in an attempt to encourage them into possible donations. Such a case exists with Henry Stevens whose painting Arrangement in Gray: Portrait of the Painter by James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) was shown in the second and seventh Annuals and was later bequeathed to the museum in 1934.

A brief overview of Burroughs's career may lend itself to a better understanding of the development and success of the Annual. Burroughs began his professional life as a school teacher at the age of seventeen in nearby Monroe County. After his second year of teaching, he spent three days during his summer break at the Detroit Museum of Art (DMA)2 to incorporate visual methods into his repertoire. During his stay, Burroughs's keen interest caught the attention of the then DMA Director Armand Griffith (1860–1930), who offered him a job. Accepting it, he initially toured school groups, then assumed a greater educational role and began to handle museum publicity tasks. By 1904, Burroughs had assumed the role of assistant director. Shortly thereafter, he took on many curatorial duties, focusing chiefly on American art. In 1924, he was named the first curator of American art. After Griffith's forced resignation in 1913, Burroughs filled in as acting director, which lasted sixteen months. In addition to this added responsibility, he also assumed the role of secretary of the museum corporation, overseeing financial matters.

Although Charles Moore (1855–1942) ultimately became the museum's third director in 1914, Burroughs more or less continued to oversee operations. For a second time, he resumed the role of director in 1917 after Moore's departure. Burroughs retained the position until 1924, when he willingly stepped aside for William Valentiner (1881–1958), who had a strong international background in art history and museum practice.

To Burroughs's credit, he established the Annual Exhibition of American Artists, which helped develop a solid foundation for one of the most important paintings collection in the country. In doing so, he also built strong relationships with patrons, most notably, Ralph Booth (1873–1931); Dexter M. Ferry, Jr. (1873–1959); William Gray (n.d.); Lizzie Merrill Palmer (1837–1916); Julia E. Peck; Robert Tannahill (1893–1969); and Richard Webber (1879–1967). E. P. Richardson (1902–85), the then director of the DIA from 1945 to 1962, wrote upon Burroughs's retirement:

His chief interest as a curator was in building up a representative series of pictures to illustrate the history of American painting. He was fortunate to have the collaboration of a generous and understanding donor, Mr. Dexter M. Ferry, Jr., and the result of their collaboration is shown particularly in the fine representative series of early Colonial portrait painters and of the painters of the early twentieth century, notably the series of The Eight.3

While searching for paintings for the Annual, Burroughs typically viewed traditional, well-established exhibitions, such as the ones at the National Academy, the Pennsylvania Academy, and the Corcoran, along with newer exhibitions. He also visited galleries and artist studios to look for material to include. Burroughs's interest in the Annual went beyond the work of art and took a more personal approach, in that he befriended many of these artists. By visiting various artists' studios, Burroughs strengthened existing and formed new relationships with the artists that he planned to represent. He was not shy about asking for introductions to prospective artists and going to their studios to view their work firsthand. Furthermore, Burroughs asked artists he greatly respected and had good working relationships with to recommend others that deserved consideration, again expanding his talent pool. These efforts helped the Annual grow and gain a reputation as one of the leading exhibitions of its type.

Burroughs's personality and interest in the artists he hoped to represent in the DIA's permanent collection are captured in a letter to Eleanor Ferry (DIA registrar), in which he discusses the purchase of the Three Top Sargeants: “In getting up our Annual Exhibition of Am. Art in those days I visited the artists in their studios and got acquainted with them personally… I did not know when I climbed to Luks' studio that morning that he had just finished the ‘Three Top Sargeants' but I was so much impressed with it that I negotiated with him for the sale of the picture to our museum, subject to the approval of our Board.”4 Further evidence of his close working relationship with artists is displayed in a letter to George Bellows (1882–1925): “It was very gracious of you to give me so much time when I was in New York, I must say that my conference with [Gifford] Beal and yourself was very stimulating.”5 He also wrote a letter to Gifford Beal (1879–1956) referencing the same meeting: “I enjoyed my luncheon with Bellows and yourself very much. We admirers from afar off deem it a real privilege to have a feast of reason and a flow of soul with men like yourselves, who are doing things.”6 The time spent with Beal and Bellows gave Burroughs insigght into their art. This association and understanding certainly factored into Burroughs's decisions about what purchase considerations to present to the board of directors.

Burroughs knew in order for the Annual to succeed, Detroit would have to be a viable art market. In the catalogue of the first Annual Burroughs wrote: "It is sufficient to say simply that artists send good pictures to those cities which prove good markets. The quality of the Annual Exhibition in Detroit will be maintained at the highest point; but the size of these exhibitions and the readiness with which pictures can be secured from artists will depend largely on the sales made." Fortunately, a number of works were sold, making the Annual an attractive venue for contemporary American artists, consequently launching the series of Annuals from which Burroughs built the foundation of the American impressionist and Ashcan School collections.

Some of the important works that entered the DIA's permanent collection through the Annual are George Bellow's A Day in June; Childe Hassam's (1859–1935) Surf and Rocks; Robert Henri's (1865–1929) The Beach Hat; William Paxton's (1896–1941) Woman Sewing; Mary Cassatt's (1845–1926) In the Garden; John Sloan's (1871–1951) McSorley's Bar; George Luks's Three Top Sargeants; and Bessie Potter Vonnoh's (1872–1955) bronze Allegresse.

Compiled by Michael E. Crane (2005)
Department of American Art, Detroit Institute of Arts

Michael Crane is an Assistant Curator in the Department of American Art at the Detroit Institute of Arts since September 1994. He is a graduate of Wayne State University with a Masters in Art History and it is at Wayne where he currently teaches comparative arts in the Humanities Program.


I would like to thank Tracee Glab and Susan Higman Larsen from the Publications Department, Nancy Locke, my Graduate School mentor, as well as, my colleagues in the Department of American Art: Timothy M. Burns, Kenneth John Myers, and James W. Tottis. Lastly, I would like to dedicate this publication to my wife Michelle Yovanovich-Crane and my parents Michael and Marianne Crane.

Footnotes / Endnotes

  1. Burroughs also used the Annual to highlight special interests, such as memorials for Myron Barlow (1873-1937), Arthur B. Davies (1862-1928), Robert Henri (1865-1929), and Julius Rolshoven (1858-1930). The Eighteenth Annual Exhibition commemorated the centenary of Winslow Homer's (1836-1910) birth under the theme of realism. Included under this theme was a grouping of paintings by Thomas Eakins (1844-1916). The nineteenth and final Annual, which served in part as a memorial for Barlow, took a further twist in that it focused on artist groupings from the various states of the Midwest excluding Ohio.
  2. In 1919 the Detroit Museum of Art became the Detroit Institute of Arts, essentially transferring the museum from a private entity to a city of Detroit municipality. This was done primarily to rectify the issue of the city of Detroit giving public money to a private institution. For more information, see W. Peck, The Detroit Institute of Arts: A Brief History (Detroit, 1991), 58-60.
  3. Detroit Institute of Arts Annual Report 1947, 15.
  4. Letter from Burroughs to Eleanor Ferry, 29 June 1960, in DIA Curatorial file, Luks General.
  5. Letter from Burroughs to George Bellows, 15 February 1917, in Burroughs Exhibition file 25/13, DIA Archives.
  6. Letter from Burroughs to Gifford Beal, 15 February 1917, in Burroughs Exhibition file 25/13, DIA Archives.

Artist names and titles of paintings are taken directly from the Annual Exhibition of American Art catalogues. Spelling and punctuation errors in the original document, when discovered, have been corrected. Otherwise the text, with award and lender information, remains as it was first published. The entries are organized as follows: artists are listed alphabetically by last name, and titles of works appear chronologically, organized by the year in which they were exhibited and listed numerically by their original catalogue number. When the medium of the exhibited work differs from oil painting, this information is noted in parentheses. Other added text, to indicate discrepancies or provide other information such as if the work was illustrated in the original catalogue, is enclosed in parentheses.

For the Nineteenth Annual Exhibition of American Art (1938), which highlighted groups of artists from the Midwest (except Ohio), the artists' state designations are included in parentheses.