Mary Bartlett Cowdrey papers

Biographical and Historical Notes

Mary Bartlett Cowdrey (1910-1974) had a long career as an art historian, archivist, and curator. She graduated from the New Jersey College for Women (later Douglass College) at Rutgers University in 1933, and spent the next two years studying at the University of London in Great Britain, where she conducted research in philosophy and aesthetics.

Cowdrey held a variety of positions in prominent cultural institutions, starting as an assistant in the exhibits department at the Newark Museum, Newark, New Jersey, in 1935. She worked as registrar at the Brooklyn Museum (1940-1942); curator of prints at the New York Historical Society (1943); curator of paintings at the Old Print Shop/Harry Shaw Newman Gallery in New York (1943-1949); curator, assistant director, and acting director of the Smith College Museum of Art (1949-1955); New York area archivist for the Archives of American Art of the Detroit Institute of Art (1955-1961); and curator of prints for the New Jersey Historical Society in Newark (1961-1962). She also belonged to the American Museum Association, Long Island Historical Society, Bibliographical Society of America, and the College Art Association.

Cowdrey wrote numerous articles and reviews in the field of nineteenth century art. She contributed to American Collector , Antiques , Dictionary of American Biography , Art in America , Panorama , The Old Print Shop portfolio , and several other publications. She is responsible for compiling the National Academy of Design Exhibition Record, 1820-1860 (New York: Printed for the New York Historical Society, 1943) and the American Academy of Fine Arts and American Art-Union Exhibition Record, 1816-1852 (New York: New York Historical Society, 1953). These two-volume sets are considered important references sources for information on paintings and engravings in America. In 1963 Cowdrey completed A History of American Painting and Sculpture, 1700-1713 for the National Park Service. She also served as author and co-author of several books and exhibition catalogs on artists, including George H. Durrie, William Sidney Mount, Fanny Palmer, and Winslow Homer.


Who's Who in American Art.New York & London: R.R. Bowker Company, 1966. p. 90.

Who's Who of American Women. Chicago: Marquis-Who’s Who, 1965. p. 221.

Rutgers University Special Collections and University Archives. "COWDREY, Mary Bartlett, 1910-1974." (accessed March 29, 2007).

Additional biographical information derived from the collection.

Scope and Content Note

The papers of American art historian Mary Bartlett Cowdrey comprise nine linear feet of notes; correspondence; manuscripts of published and unpublished books and articles; engravings and lithographs from published sources; photographs of paintings and engravings; postcards; clippings from books, exhibition catalogs, magazines, and newspapers, for approximately 1,600 American artists active during the eighteenth through early twentieth centuries. The collection is arranged in five series that roughly correspond to Cowdrey's publishing and research projects.

Series I. National Academy of Design; American Academy of Fine Arts; American Art-Union Exhibition Record is the largest segment of the collection. The series is divided into three subseries which correspond to the chronological periods before 1820s, 1800s-1890, and late 1800s-1930. Within each period, general alphabetical files (A - F, etc.) are followed by individual files alphabetized by the artist's last name. The files include information on more than 1,200 American artists and 12,000 works of art, which Cowdrey collected to write her books National Academy of Design Exhibition Record, 1820-1860 and American Academy of Fine Arts and American Art-Union Exhibition Record, 1816-1852 . For these projects, she selected artists who displayed their work at the three major annual art exhibitions held during the nineteenth century in New York City at the National Academy of Design, the American Academy of Fine Arts, and the American Art-Union. Cowdrey continued to use the files for other projects, such as preparing exhibition catalogs for individual artists like George H. Durrie, William Sidney Mount, Fanny Palmer, and Winslow Homer. Materials in this series include Cowdrey’s notes and correspondence; photographs of paintings and engravings; postcards; and clippings from books, exhibition catalogs, magazines, and newspapers. Other visual materials include engravings and lithographs published in the periodicals The New Mirror , Harper’s Bazaar , The Christian Diadem and Family Keepsake , and The Columbian Magazine , as well as a number of nineteenth-century books. The bulk of this series dates from 1940 to 1954, and items from this era include exhibition catalog records, articles, information about owners, and pricelists. Cowdrey corresponded with museums, libraries, private galleries, art historians, and private owners to attribute and identify works of art.

Series II. comprises Cowdrey’s unpublished manuscript National Academy of Design Exhibition Record, 1861-1890 , which she completed in 1965. Intended to be a continuation of her earlier work, National Academy of Design Exhibition Record, 1820-1860 , the manuscript includes 3,700 artists and 27,000 entries, making it a more comprehensive survey than the similar volume published by M. Naylor in 1973.

Series III. is a draft of the manuscript A History of American Painting and Sculpture, 1700-1913 . The National Park Service commissioned this work as a part of a project for the National Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings. The purpose of the project was to assemble a list of sites connected to celebrated American artists. Only two copies were issued, and the National Park Service possesses both.

Series IV. Writing and Publicity combines two groups of materials. The first group comprises clippings from publications and articles in manuscript form that Mary Cowdrey wrote between 1936-1965 for a variety of publications, including exhibit catalogs, art magazines, bulletins, and books. The second group is composed of press publicity devoted to Cowdrey.

Series V. English Art is composed mainly of engravings from published sources and photographs of British paintings and engravings, with some notes and articles interspersed among the visual materials. Cowdrey began collecting this material while studying at the University of London in 1934-1935, and continued her efforts after her return to the United States.

The Mary Bartlett Cowdrey papers offer valuable insight into the research methods of a prominent American art historian and curator, as well as providing a wealth of information gathered over many years concerning the exhibition history of American artists in the nineteenth-century.