Jonathan Sturges (1802-1874), enlightened patron of the arts
Prime mover in 1800s American art
Jonathan Sturges, ca. 1850s
Jonathan Sturges, ca 1870, W. Kurtz
Mrs. Jonathan Sturges (1806-1894)
(Mary Pemberton Cady)
Jonathan Sturges was a leading force in promoting American art and American art institutions from the 1830s until his death in 1874. A close friend to Hudson River School artists Asher B. Durand and Thomas Cole, through purchases, financial support, and assisting with sales to his acquaintances, he also actively promoted the careers of William Sidney Mount, Frederic Edwin Church, and secondary figures in American art like Robert Weir, John Gadsby Chapman, and Henry Kirke Brown in the period leading up to and immediately following the Civil War. He was close friends with Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand, whose son John he employed for many years in his Front Street store, a fact not generally known. It is likely that he was a backer of the famous periodical "The Crayon," as well as contributing significantly to Louis Legrand Noble's biography of Thomas Cole. In at least three documented cases, Sturges paid more than the asking prices to artists for his purchases of their work; in one well-documented case, he gave Durand a stipend for his masterwork "In the Woods," a year or two after its purchase, stating that the trees had grown and hence the painting's value had too. Sturges was inspired in his patronage and collecting by his business partner and mentor Luman Reed. Although Reed collected for a far shorter period of time than Sturges, from roughly 1830-1836, he is far more famous. This is probably due to his more outgoing and public personality; for instance he opened the private gallery in his home to visitors on a regular basis. Sturges actively shunned public attention for his philanthropic activities, which included sustained support for leading arts organizations and art exhibitions, including the National Academy of Design, American Art-Union, Sketch Club, Century Association, Great Metropolitan Sanitary Fair's art exhibition, New-York Gallery of the Fine Arts, and the New-York Historical Society, as well as his early involvement with the establishment of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Masterworks of American art from the Sturges collection are found today in leading museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum, National Gallery of Art, Currier Gallery, and others. Sturges's wife, Mary Pemberton Cady, was remarkable in her own right; a highly intelligent, educated woman who was a teacher for some years, she chronicled her early life in the book "Reminiscences of a Long Life." For further information on Sturges, a web search under his name and mine together will pull up the articles I have written on this undersung hero. Three of his sons went on to become collectors, presumably basing their collecting on the art (and funds) they inherited after their parents died. I have been inspired by both Reed and Sturges in my own far more modest mentorship and patronage of living artists.