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Southern Art Union

Established in 1880, the Southern Art Union organized southern artists, especially those in New Orleans, to promote an appreciation for the fine arts.

Southern Art Union

Courtesy of Louisiana State Museum

Pine in Bayou. Smith, Marshall J., Jr. (Artist)

Established in 1880, the Southern Art Union organized southern artists, especially those in New Orleans, to promote an appreciation for the fine arts. Founded by a group of professional artists, including Andres Molinary, George David Coulon, William Henry Buck, Marshall J. Smith, and Paul Poincy, the union offered some of the first organized art classes in New Orleans. Organizational difficulties, however, led to its re-formation as the Artists’ Association of New Orleans in 1886.

Early History

As the name suggests, the founders of the Southern Art Union hoped to provide an organizational structure for southern artists—professional and amateur—who wanted to cultivate the fine arts. The union would, as its founders stated, encourage “art in its highest sense,” as well as the “drawing together of the artists into some bond of union, and, if possible, the furtherance of the appreciation of art among amateurs.” The group planned to provide instructional classes, an art gallery, a museum, and a reading room. Active members would have the opportunity present their work for exhibition or sale.

The union’s first meeting took place in the home of landscape painter Marshall Joseph Smith, Jr., and was soon followed by a second meeting held in the studio of Andres Molinary in late April 1880. At the second meeting, artist Edward Livingston read the constitution and bylaws drafted by a committee of twelve, selected at the first meeting. A third meeting was held at the Carondelet Street residence of writer Mary Ashley Townsend. Members elected Robert Mott as president, Gideon Stanton as vice-president, Adolph Schreiber as second vice-president, Marion A. Bakeras secretary, and Milton C. Randall as treasurer. The art committee included Molinary, Smith, Livingston, Townsend, Paul E. Poincy, John Genin, Theodore J. Moise, George David Coulon, Horace Carpenter, John McLean, Mrs. F. A. Cox, George W. Christy, William Henry Buck, and Charles Giroux, among others.

Activities

On May 25, 1881, the Southern Art Union opened its first exhibition at 203 Canal Street. By November of that year, the group began offering courses through its School of Art. Sculptor and watercolorist Achille Perelli taught many of the first drawing classes. In February 1882, the group opened its second exhibition, which focused on “contemporary American Art Works.” It included paintings by American artists Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Eakins, as well as British painter Thomas Gainsborough.

Opened in April 1882, by December 1884 the Southern Art Union’s free circulating library boasted of having more than one thousand volumes, most of which were either donated or purchased with donated funds. The Southern Art Union’s pubic library was the first circulating library in New Orleans.

By April 1881, the Woman’s Industrial Association, originally called the Woman’s Exchange, had formed under the aegis of the Southern Art Union. The artists’ group was then renamed the Southern Art Union-Woman’s Industrial Association. Classes were expanded to included drawing, painting, art needlework, and plain sewing.

Despite the union’s accomplishments, it was short lived. Dissatisfaction with the structure of the Southern Art Union led many of its members to resign, and for a brief period the city’s artists had no affiliation with a professional organization. Its members, however, built upon the group’s successes and reestablished themselves in 1886 as the Artists’ Association of New Orleans.