Saturday, November 7, 2015

Forgotten History: Pittsburgh's First Museum

Given the predominance of the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History in Pittsburgh's cultural scene, we can perhaps be forgiven for thinking they were the first museums that graced our fair city. But a decade before Andrew Carnegie was even born in Scotland, Pittsburgh had a museum founded by a hometown boy named James Reid Lambdin.

James Reid Lambdin
James Reid Lambdin, c. 1845, miniature self-portrait
National Portrait Gallery
James Reid Lambdin was born in Pittsburgh on May 10, 1807, the middle of three sons born to James and Prudence Harrison Lambdin. His carpenter father died in 1812, and James left school at age 12 to work in a bookstore to help support his family. James had been inspired to become an artist at the tender age of 7 after seeing a reproduction of the legendary Gilbert Stuart's portraits of George Washington, and he took advantage of access to art instruction books at the shop. In 1822 at age 15 he moved to Philadelphia to further his artistic ambitions.

Artist Thomas Sully, who had studied under Stuart and Benjamin West, agreed to take James on as an apprentice but first insisted he complete six months of training with artist Edward Miles. Miles' miniatures and portraits were renowned throughout Russia and England, and in his youth he had studied with famed British painter Sir Joshua Reynolds. James Reid Lambdin absorbed all he could from these impressive influences, and within two years of arriving in the city exhibited a portrait at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He was fortunate enough to have his own likeness painted by Sully, thus benefiting from seeing the master at work close at hand. James made the most of his time, joining The Painters Club of Philadelphia and attending its weekly meetings before returning to Pittsburgh in July 1824.

Mary O'Hara Cochran, c. 1850, by James Reid Lambdin.
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Once back in the city of his birth, James Reid Lambdin began to advertise his services as a drawing instructor and portrait painter, but there was only so much work to be had in 1820s Pittsburgh. Life as a portrait painter in early America meant traveling to where people of means who might want portraits painted lived, and so Lambdin left Pittsburgh to peddle his talents in various cities via the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. He was an artist of considerable skill and impressive training and steadily built his artistic reputation and portfolio. He even managed to snag a wife during this period, having met Mary O'Hara Cochran as a pupil in one of his Pittsburgh drawing classes. They became engaged in May 1826 but had an extended betrothal since Pittsburgh Judge William Wilkins offered in early 1827 to financially sponsor James for two years of European travel and study. That kind of sponsorship and patronage was an artist's dream come true, for in the days before full color art reproductions nothing could beat studying the great artistic masterworks of Europe in person. Financial setbacks caused Wilkins to rescind his offer, so although James painted his way to his planned departure in New York City, he did not set sail.

Cooling his heels in New York, James visited the museum of his friend Rubens Peale, a son of famed
Peale Museum, New York City, c. 1825.
Museum of the City of New York
American portraitist Charles Willson Peale. Due to poor eyesight Rubens had not pursued an artistic career like his father and brothers and was instead making his way as a museum director. He first served as director of his father's Philadelphia Museum (aka Peale's American Museum), then as co-founder and director with his artist-brother Rembrandt at the Baltimore Peale Museum, and finally as founder and director of the Peale Museum in New York City. James had come to know the flagship Philadelphia Peale museum, situated in Philadelphia's Independence Hall, and would have recognized it as the prototype for Rubens' New York establishment. Encouraged by Rubens, it didn't take long for James to decide to capitalize on his connections and open his own establishment back in Pittsburgh, no doubt hoping for a steady income from the museum so he could comfortably settle into domestic life.

The Lambdin Museum Collection
And so it was that James Reid Lambdin opened the first museum west of the Allegheny Mountains on September 8, 1828. Lambdin married Mary O'Hara Cochran three days later on September 11, 1828 at Pittsburgh's Trinity Cathedral.

The Pittsburgh Museum of Natural History and Gallery of Fine Art was situated at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Market Street downtown. The Lambdin collection consisted of an eclectic assortment of natural history,archaeological, and artistic specimens and reflected the philosophy of Charles Willson Peale, who thought such museums should be made available for education "to both the unlearned and the unwise." Looking back from the vantage point of the late 1800s, Thomas Cushing recalled in his History of Allegheny County that Lambdin's establishment was “the one specimen of taste or amusement in the city" in its day. The museum solicited subscribers who maintained memberships, but it was also open to the general public with admission of 25¢ for adults and 12 1/2¢ for children. It should be noted that these were hardly bargain prices for working class Pittsburghers, since a tailor in 1830 might earn 25¢ for a pair of pantaloons that took him 15 hours to sew!

Cushing described the collection as consisting of
"Fine land sketches by Doughty, Birch, Lawrence, etc.: pictures from the collection of Baron Muller, portraits of distinguished characters by Stuart, Sully, Peale and Lambdin. The museum contains about two hundred foreign birds among which are the "Birds of Paradise," 20 quadrupeds, 500 minerals, 300 fossils, 300 marine shells, 1,200 impressions of medals, 100 ancient coins and a handsome collection of articles from the South Seas Marine Protection, Indian articles, etc.
The American museums of the day were not that far removed from the individual "curiosity cabinets" which collectors maintained to try to categorize and tell stories about the wonders and oddities of the natural world. Whether in an actual cabinet, room, or museum space, specimens were displayed in both logical and idiosyncratic organization, and collecting itself was a haphazard affair governed by subjective tastes for beauty, oddities and marvels. A combination of natural history and art was typical of such collections given the era's philosophical and scholarly interrelationship of art and science.
Pittsburgh Gazette

Pittsburgh was fortunate to have a representative assortment of early American and European artwork in its museum, made possible by James Lambdin's profession and contacts. Like the Peale museums, the Lambdin's art collection would have included original pieces as well as copies of old and contemporary famous works. James displayed his own art and that of Charles Willson Peale, copies of Gilbert Stuart's works, and work by his teacher Thomas Sully. He hosted visiting expeditions, too, including the 18x14 foot Calvary or The Moment Before the Crucifixion by one-eyed painter, author and playwright William Dunlap. That monumental painting, which Dunlap considered his masterpiece, was sent on national tour in 1828 and thus made its way to Pittsburgh (the current location of the painting, if it even still exists, is unknown).

James Lambdin's apprentice Russell Smith claimed that there were about 60 paintings at the museum, some of which had belonged to a German count (possibly a member of the near-by Harmonite community, or the Baron Muller mentioned in Thomas Cushing's History of Allegheny County). 

The following letter from notable Pittsburgher William Croghan, father of Mary Croghan Schenley, was written when he was preparing to sell off his own collection in January 1831. It gives us an idea of the quality of artwork that may have been showcased in Lambdin's Museum:
...I expect soon to leave here & know now whether I shall again go to keeping house, I am therefore anxious to dispose of those I offered and others--Those I offered you were 1st Oedipus, Antigone & Polyneus, from a story in the Greek mythology) by Biloq a French artist--This painting was purchased in Paris, in 1824, by W. Lee, (a connoisseur)formerly our consul at Bardran & late 4th auditor of account, & for which he then paid as he spared me, 1500 francs
2nd Is a head (doubtless an original) by Rembrandt, purchased at the same time & by the same person for 500 francs
3. The Head of a Miser said by VanDyke (doubtful) certainly of fine execution.
4. St. Peter, by Tiepolo an Italian artist
5 & 6. Concert & Feast--Muller   
6 & 7. Freebooters--&Money changers--these are two splendid paintings & universally admired--by Vos
8 "Blessings before meals." Has the appearance of being once a fine painting, it is much injured by age--
For those paintings I am willing to take Three Hundred Dollars (300) I think, they would be an acquisition to any gallery--the motives that induce me to sell are what I had stated--Respectfully
Yr oh Sr
I leave here about 1s February next                                                                   WiCroghan
Just as curators do today, James Reid Lambdin worked at keeping his exhibits fresh and exciting in order to entice the public through his doors. Unlike modern-day museum curators, Lambdin's natural history offerings were, well, really fresh.

Pittsburgh Gazette

Pittsburgh Gazette
The museum also featured a novelty of the day: gas lighting. Although gas lighting was commonly in use in Europe and other US cities, in 1829 Lambdin's Museum was one of the first public spaces in the city of Pittsburgh to experiment with this technology. The city itself would not be lit with gas until April 1837.  Aside from that novelty, Lambdin also sought to impress and drum up business with curiosities, much as P.T. Barnum would do a decade later. He supplemented his regular collecting with traveling exhibits of Egyptian mummies, artificial fireworks, armless musicians, and dioramas on subjects ranging from the Great Fire of Russia to the Battle of Waterloo.

Also, in 1831 there was a visiting mermaid. Even the most "sceptical persons expressed a satisfaction on beholding it."

Not everyone was impressed, however. German naturalist Prince Maximilian of Wied passed through Pittsburgh in October 1832 and had this to say:
In the local museum, I had seen several interesting animals native to this region, and had ordered them from a fisherman at the fish market. Dr. Harlan of Philadelphia had also given me a letter to the owner of the museum, a portrait painter, Mr Lambdin; and through this I had been able to familiarize myself with those interesting animals. Otherwise the museum is scarcely worth seeing and does not deserve mention.
Not a fan of American portraiture, that Prince Maximilian. Too bad he didn't get to see the mermaid.

Still, James persevered with gathering specimens according to letters detailing shipments of shells and birds and mentioning his friendship with John James Audubon.

Although the museum bore his name and regularly advertised its collection, James Lambdin was an absentee curator, inconsistently present in Pittsburgh due to his continued travels seeking portrait commissions. James and Mary and their newborn son George stayed for extended periods of time from the 1830s on with friends in Ohio and Mississippi. His painting apprentice, a 16 year old painter christened William Thompson Russell Smith but known as Russell Smith, maintained the Lambdin Museum when the boss was away. Russell Smith recalled in his memoirs:
Portrait of Russell Smith by James Reid Lambdin, 1838
In the agreement with Mr. Lambdin I was to aid him in any way I could in his painting as a return for his instruction; but as he was about to open the "Pittsburgh Museum"--a partial off-shoot of Peale's in Philadelphia, he had little time to paint or give instruction and I gradually drifted into helping in the stuffing of birds and beasts, arranging minerals, antiquities and Indian costumes--of which there was a most extensive collection given by General Clarke (Lewis' companion)--and hanging the pictures etc; and finally keeping accounts and managing when Mr. Lambdin was off in the South for five months at a time reaping a harvest with his brush to help pay the rent and other expenses of the Museum, which did not pay its own way.

The museum functioned as a cultural center and atheneum, becoming the home of the local Philosophical Society and Pittsburgh Reading Club. Nineteenth century author Samuel Young recalled:
Well do we remember Lambdin's Museum at the corner of Fourth and Market streets. Here night after night a dozen or so of youngsters, who sought to be Forrests or Booths, used to gather and perform upon the stage. The only pay Lambdin ever gave his performers of this class was a hot lunch, and Englishman-like, a big pitcher of hot punch. There was not enough of this latter to "make drunk come," but it put all in a good humor. Our position in this galaxy of genius was that of a singer of Irish songs, and we were able to "bring down the house" on occasions.

The museum was also the site of scholarly lectures such as these on Chemistry. 

Pittsburgh Gazette

Pittsburgh Gazette

Whither, Lambdin Museum?
Pittsburgh Gazette
Despite its prominence in Pittsburgh's cultural scene, the Lambdin Museum was not a resounding financial success. James' passion was for painting, not museum administration, and he would later describe his curatorial efforts as "years of trouble, vexation, and pecuniary loss." At least through January 1833, James was still showing his work at a gallery in Pittsburgh but he and Mary and their son moved to Louisville, Kentucky in 1832. He transferred the contents of his Pittsburgh museum to a rented building on Main Street in Louisville, and a board of trustees incorporated the Louisville Museum Company in February 1835. The museum was rechartered in 1838 as the Harlan Museum Company, but little is known about its subsequent fate. By that point James Lambdin and his family had permanently moved to Philadelphia. He and Mary raised seven surviving of nine children, and their oldest son George Cochran Lambdin achieved considerable success as a still-life flower painter.

James Reid Lambdin went on to a stellar career as a painter of some of America's most prominent citizens of the day. Every American president from John Quincy Adams to James Garfield sat for him. He was a prolific artist and his paintings can be found in museums and collections around the country. The Carnegie Museum of Art possesses two of his portraits.

Benjamin Darlington by James Reid Lambdin
Carnegie Museum of Art
Henry Clay by James Reid Lambdin
Carnegie Museum of Art

Lambdin's assistant Russell Smith went on to achieve great acclaim as a landscape artist. Poor Smith didn't get much painting done under his apprenticeship with James Lambdin but he didn't seem to mind, later noting:
....I did very little painting until I was twentyone; but I never blamed Mr. Lambdin; he could not help it; and I believe, in my various duties, I learned much that was of great use to me in after life, when my pursuit of painting took an entirely different turn. Mr. Lambdin also had a good collection of books on Art and these I used much to my advantage especially "Edwards' Perspective," and, in order to put its' rules into practice, I drew many buildings and views in and about Pittsburg, which have since the destruction of the Great Fire, a value....
Russell Smith's paintings of Pittsburgh are indeed valuable treasures that preserve a visual record of the city from the early 1830s, and James Lambdin's portraits allow us to visualize the men and women of their day. But the museum that they maintained is long gone, the building likely destroyed in the Great Fire of 1845. The site is today occupied by the PPG Plaza/Ice Rink/Tomb of the Unknown Bowler.

Selected Sources and Suggested Reading
Crutcher, Lawrence M. George Keats of Kentucky: A Life. University Press of Kentucky, 2012.
Cushing, Thomas. History of Allegheny County. Chicago: A. Warner & Company, 1889.
Kelly, George Edward. Allegheny County, a sesqui-centennial review. Pittsburgh, PA: Allegheny County Sesqui-Centenntial Committee, 1938.
Lambdin, James R. Journal of James R. Lambdin. Division of Archives and Manuscripts, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg, PA.
Lewis, Virginia E. Russell Smith Romantic Realist. University of Pittsburgh Press, 1956.
Martin, Scott C. Killing Time: Leisure and Culture in Southwestern Pennsylvania, 1800-1850.
University of Pittsburgh Press, Nov 1, 1995.
O'Connor, John Jr.  Reviving a Forgotten Artist: A Sketch of James Reid Lambdin, The Pittsburgh Painter of American Statesmen. Carnegie Magazine 12 (September 1938): 115–18
Sargent, Elizabeth Kennedy. Lambdin’s Pittsburgh Museum of Natural History and Gallery of the Fine Arts, 1828–1832.  Tutorial research paper, Chatham College, 1984.
Swetnam, George. Pittsburgh's Early Painters. The Pittsburgh Press. Sunday August 6, 1967. United States, Bureau of Labor Statistics. History of Wages in the United States from Colonial Times to 1928: Revision of Bulletin No. 499 with Supplement, 1929-1933. Gale Research Company, 1966.
Weidner, Ruth Irwin. The Lambdin Family Collection of Paintings by James Reid Lambdin and George Cochran Lambdin. Philadelphia: Schwarz Fine Paintings, 2002.
Witte, Stephen S. Witte and Marsha V. Gallagher. The North American Journals of Prince Maximilian of Wied: May 1832-April 1833, Volume 1. University of Oklahoma Press, Apr 9, 2014.
Young, Samuel. The history of my life; being a biographical outline of the events of a long and busy life.  Pittsburgh: Herald Print. Co.,1890.