Rare Finds from the Archives: Alden and Vada Dow’s Collection of Art Print Portfolios

In the 1930s, before expensive coffee table art books were as widely available as they are today, those who wanted to enjoy the beauty of art in their homes collected art prints. Alden and Vada Dow owned several beautiful portfolios of art prints from the 1920s and 1930s that are now housed in the Home and Studio Archives.
One of their more important collections is The Work of Georgia O’Keeffe: A Portfolio of Twelve Paintings. An oversized black case holds 12 hand-printed color plates, each measuring 20.5 by 17.5 inches and printed on O’Keeffe Opaque paper made especially for this publication. It was printed by the Dial Press and distributed by Knight Publishers in 1937 as a limited edition of 1050 sets, of which the Dow’s hold #27.
The 12 O’Keeffe paintings selected for the portfolio range in date from 1920 to 1937 and include the subjects and scenes for which she is famous: Sun Flower, New Mexico; Pedernal and Red Hills, Ghost Ranch; White Skull with White Roses, and Black and Purple Petunias, among others.
The portfolio features an introduction by James W. Lane taken from his book, The Masters in Modern Art, in which he wrote: “For centuries women have fought a gallant battle to achieve equality with men. In many fields they have succeeded, but it remained for Georgia O’Keeffe to prove that a woman was able to compete with man’s creative versatility and courage in the fight for a new art language.”
Another impressive collection of art prints owned by Mr. and Mrs. Dow is Vanity Fair’s Portfolio of Modern French Art, published in 1935. Earlier, in 1915, Vanity Fair magazine began printing occasional reproductions of paintings in black and white accompanied by articles written by art critics of the day. In 1931, Vanity Fair began a series of reproductions in full color. The interest by the public in color prints was extraordinarily high, so the editors decided to incorporate 39 of them in this portfolio to create, in their words, “a brief but orderly view of the march of modern French painting.”
In an introduction entitled “The Tree of Modern Art,” the art historian and critic R. H. Wilenski attempts “to show the correlation between the different modern schools and movements, their growth from one another; the leaves and fruit which they have borne; and even the sad end that has attended some of them.” A rather amusing illustration of this tree is even provided.
The portfolio contains 40 plates in color of works by 31 masters, including Degas, Manet, Renoir, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso, Rousseau, Modigliani, and Toulouse-Lautrec. The leaves are folded and extend to 24 by 14.5 inches when opened. Facing each plate is an essay providing a biographical sketch of the artist, a description of the outstanding features of the work, the significance of the particular painting selected, among other notes. Taken all together, Vanity Fair’s Portfolio became a modern French art appreciation class in one neat package.
While these two portfolios acquired by the Dow’s years ago are part of the Archives, they are also used in conjunction with the International Art unit in the Theory of Knowledge curriculum of the International Baccalaureate program of the Midland Public Schools. Students from Midland High and Dow High spend an afternoon examining selected prints from these works as well as many others. Exposure to works of art from a variety of cultures and time periods in addition to looking at objects from many different perspectives are key learning objectives of the lesson. And, it’s one of the practical ways in which the holdings of the Archives are utilized in support of the educational mission of the Home and Studio.
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