George Perkins Marsh

George Perkins Marsh portrait

In the spring of 1849, the newly founded Smithsonian Institution purchased its first collection, a group of European prints and art books assembled by Vermont Congressman George Perkins Marsh. Although unrelated to the Smithsonian’s then primarily scientific orientation, they were viewed as a comprehensive way to satisfy the Congressional mandate for an art gallery that was part of the original legislation which established the Smithsonian Institution in 1846. Some of the original art books are held in the Libraries and are available here.

...This collection, though not the largest in the country, is believed to be the choicest. It was made with the special design of illustrating the progress and resources of the art of engraving in all its branches, from its early masters to the present time. It required an educated eye, a cultivated taste, an earnest study of the history of the art, much diligent search, and the aid of many friends and correspondents, to bring together so many of the most valuable prints which have ever been executed. The acquisition of this collection has saved to the Institution all expenditure of either time or money, for skill and labor thus bestowed.
[from the Fifith Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution March 7, 1851]

Read more about the collection at the National Museum of American History.