Photo credit: Redwood Library

 A highlight of its 275th anniversary, the Redwood Library & Athenaeum has opened a major exhibition: Treasures of the Redwood: Celebrating 275 Years

The show brings together the full range of material absorbed in the Redwood collections over the course of the 275 years the Library has served as Newport’s intellectual center and municipal archive, as well as Rhode Island’s first art gallery. As designed, the exhibition features the Redwood’s Special Collections areas: The long 18c; Early modern architecture; Early modern Decorative arts and design and 19c portraiture.

Beginning with the supremely rare working papers of the early Library itself, the minutes from the 18c; the manuscript catalog and the check-out tickets, the exhibition includes a rich selection of 18c Newport material, including Gilbert Stuart portraits; the japanned case of the masterpiece Claggett clock gifted to the Library in the 1940s; a Townsend Goddard card table and the famous manuscript diary of so-called Nailer Tom. This Newport focus is extended by a section on Palladian architecture, the architecture style derived from the Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio (1508-1580), of which the Redwood itself is the first and arguably the most important example.   

The next section treats the Greenough collection of 18c illustrated books, mainly French, donated to the Redwood in 1961. Among these, are masterpiece volumes of French Rococo design, a pair of the finest illustrated books of the French eighteenth century, and a handful of exceptional folio-sized festival books documenting royal pageantry. Also focused on the eighteenth century is the world-class Cary collection of ornament and pattern books featuring many rarities, including several volumes that are unique in the world or known in only two or three copies. The section culminates with a presentation of French 19c decorative drawings that correspond to an 1886 book produced by Charles Polisch, the silver medal winner at the Paris world exposition in 1878, and one of the top-drawer architectural painters of the second half of the nineteenth century.

One of the highpoints of the exhibition is a wall dedicated to Newport portraitist Charles Bird King (1785-1862), one of the Redwood’s great benefactors. Besides his two self-portraits, the presentation includes a few folios of King’s 17-volume scrapbook.

The exhibition reminds us of the importance of the Redwood as the cultural anchor in Newport, one that for all times embodied Newporters’ aspirations to make theirs a city of culture as well as of commerce and leisure. As described by one period source, the Library “rendered the inhabitants of Newport, if not a learned, yet a better read, and inquisitive people, than any other town in the British colonies.” The resulting collections reflect both individual tastes and a sort of aggregate autobiography of the city itself. 

Now open through March 5, 2023 in the Van Alen Gallery at the Redwood Library & Athenaeum. In celebration of the 275th Anniversary year admission is free. 

The Redwood Library & Athenæum is America’s first purpose-built library (1747), and the oldest continuously operating in its original location. Housed in the earliest public Neoclassic building in the U.S., and containing Rhode Island’s first art gallery (1875), it has functioned for nearly three-hundred years as Newport’s intellectual core, a humanities center and civic learning hub styled after ideals of ancient Athenian culture and philosophy. 

As an athenaeum, an interdisciplinary ‘think space’ comprising a library, museum, and research center, the Redwood is home to 200,000 volumes, with particular strengths in early American history and material culture, early modern architecture, decorative arts and garden design, eighteenth-century European illustrated books, and the history of Newport and Rhode Island. The museum holds an important collection of portrait paintings and artifacts, and features two gallery spaces for rotating exhibitions. With these resources the Redwood provides a range of cultural experiences and services: lectures, concerts, and exhibitions, in addition to a lending library and the facilities for the scholarly study of its historic holdings.

Created as a community endeavor by its namesake and forty-six original proprietors—what has been described as the single “greatest act of philanthropy in colonial America”—the Redwood Library was established to “propagate virtue, knowledge and useful learning with nothing in view but the good of mankind.” Its premise is that an educated citizenry undergirds civil society and a strong republic.

Today, nearly three centuries after its inception as a premier institution of the American Enlightenment, and with an acknowledgement of its founding on the profits of the slave economy of the eighteenth-century sugar trade, it is explicitly committed to the public humanities, defined here as the use of history and culture to address diverse communities so as to create a more enlightened and equitable world.

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