Capturing Creativity

Capturing Creativity

Smithsonian Libraries collects books about art and books that are works of art themselves. Our collections span many movements and mediums, from historic Japanese prints to contemporary American art and design.

Historic examples of decorative arts and avant-garde book designs offer inspiration to today’s designers. Illustrated children’s books bring stories to life for young readers. Artists’ ephemera and objects provide insight into the creative process. And contemporary artists’ books push the boundaries of what a book can be.

The knowledge of all things is possible.

— Artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci

Why Did They Collect?

Charles Freer and William Rockhill

Detroit industrialist and art collector Charles Lang Freer (1854–1919) was introduced to Asian art by American artist James McNeill Whistler. Freer traveled to Asia several times, bringing back prints, artworks, and books.

Charles Lang Freer

Photograph by Edward Steichen

Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives

Before his death, Freer donated his collection to the Smithsonian and helped establish the Freer Gallery. Freer’s avid interest in collecting Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai’s prints, paintings, and drawings extended to his woodblock-printed books as well.

U.S. diplomat William Woodville Rockhill (1854–1914) immersed himself in Tibetan culture, design, and religion, collecting books and rare manuscripts about Central Asia.

William Woodville Rockhill

University of Toronto Library

His wide-ranging collection includes this hand-written and illustrated sutra. Sutras are records of religious practices and teachings. In the Buddhist tradition, copying sutras is a meditative practice intended to bring inspiration and hope.

Katsushika Hokusai

Fugaku hyakkei
Japan, 1834–1849

Hokusai devoted years to depicting Japan’s sacred volcanic mountain, Mt. Fuji, both in his woodblock-printed book series and in the color prints that would establish his reputation abroad.

Fo ding xin tuo luo ni jing

China, between 1644 and 1722

This early sutra collected by William Woodville Rockhill depicts a young woman whose devotion to the sutra protects her and her children from a vengeful enemy.

Smithsonian Libraries Collects

Artists’ Books & Artists’ Ephemera

Artists’ books are works of art in book form. They often contain unconventional bindings, pop-ups, and unusual or handmade materials. Artists’ ephemera, such as brochures, invitations, clippings, and more esoteric items, can offer uncommon perspectives on an artist’s work.

A Guide to Printmaking

On the Surface features prints by South African artists demonstrating a variety of printmaking techniques, including woodcutting, wood engraving, linoleum cutting, linoleum etching, relief etching, and collagraphy—a method of printing using collage materials.

Illustrating Inferno

A Dante Bestiary by South African artist Judith Mason is a reinterpretation of Italian poet Dante’s epic poem La Divina Commedia (Divine Comedy). Mason explains, “When I distort an image it is intended to provoke compassion rather than censure, to trigger pathos rather than revulsion."

Parody Pamphlets

The Society of Washington Fakirs was a group of D.C.-area art students who created parodies of the works of established artists in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They created satirical pamphlets to accompany exhibitions of their work at Washington’s Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Provocative Piece

American artist Tom Sachs’s work addresses a wide range of issues, including consumerism and violence. Visitors to his exhibition Haute Bricolage at New York’s Mary Boone Gallery could take home bullets in orange paper bags, resembling Hermès packaging. The gallery’s owner was later arrested for unlawful distribution of ammunition.

Pippa Skotnes, Roderick Sauls, and Fritha Langerman

On the Surface: Art and technique of relief printmaking
Cape Town, South Africa, 1996

Judith Mason

A Dante Bestiary: A guide in offset lithographs and an essay
New York, 1989
Gift from the Margery Masinter Foundation Endowment for Illustrated Books

Society of Washington Fakirs

Washington, D.C., 1905 and 1908

Tom Sachs

Bag from Haute Bricolage exhibition 1999

Why Did He Collect?

George Turner

George Turner began collecting books about stamps in 1939, when he acquired the library of pioneering stamp collector William C. Stone. During his lifetime, Turner (1906–1979) amassed more than 3,000 books about stamps, which he bequeathed to the Smithsonian, where he served as curator of the national philatelic collection.

George T Turner

Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum

Maṣlaḥat al-Misāḥah

A Short Note on the Design and Issue of Postage Stamps
Cairo, 1918

Why Did They Collect?

The Hewitt Sisters

Sisters Sarah (1859–1930) and Eleanor Hewitt (1864–1924) began collecting books and examples of decorative arts at an early age. Inspired by the Musée des Art Décoratifs in Paris, they decided to open their collection to the public. Their goal was to elevate the state of design in America by creating a living laboratory, where students, designers, and craftsmen could come for reference and inspiration. Today, their collection is part of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York, where their books form the core of the library.

Sarah Hewitt, Eleanor Hewitt

Courtesy of Anna Engesser Parmee, through
Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Fashionable Furniture

English cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale had a profound influence on the history of commercial product design. His intricate designs, including Gothic, Chinese, and Rococo styles, spread quickly and set a new standard for the style and construction of furniture.

Early Catalog

Birmingham, England, was known as “the first manufacturing town in the world.” Catalogs emerged in the 1700s as an effective way to market industrial design, including brass hardware and decorative objects.

Lace Patterns

The Hewitt sisters introduced American designers to historic design sources, including Italian engraver Cesare Vecellio’s influential Renaissance-era lace patterns, which continue to inspire lace makers today.

Influential Interiors

They collected books not only for their beauty but also for their innovation, quality of workmanship, and instructional value. Charles Busby’s early interior design pattern book inspired American architects to incorporate neoclassical designs into their homes.

Cabinet of Curiosities

Dutch pharmacist Albertus Seba (1665–1736) devoted his life to collecting exotic plants and animals. His richly illustrated books document his cabinet of curiosities—a precursor of the modern museum. He commissioned hand-colored illustrations to document his extensive collection of plants, animals, and other curiosities, including a squid.

His work served as a model for future books on collecting and classification, but it is also a landmark of artistry and design.

Hundreds of unique objects, excelling in beauty of design and of exquisite workmanship... have been fruitful sources of inspiration and in constant use by artist artisans.

— Eleanor Hewitt

Thomas Chippendale

The gentleman and cabinet-maker's director
London, 1754

Birmingham brass catalog

Birmingham, England, ca. 1780s

Cesare Vecellio

Corona delle nobili, et virtuose donne
Venice, Italy, 1592

Charles Augustin Busby

A collection of designs for modern embellishments
London, ca. 1834

Albertus Seba

Locupletissimi rerum naturalium thesauri accurata descriptio
Amsterdam, 1734–1765

Why Did He Collect?

Jacques Francais

Collector Jacques Francais (1923–2004) came from a family with a passion for violins. After immigrating to America from France, he became a world-renowned violin dealer and expert. The books he collected cover all aspects of string instruments, from their history and design to the musicians who played them.

Jacques Francais

Photo by Isabelle Francais,
Courtesy of Beatrice Francais

Encyclopedia of Musical Instruments

Gabinetto armonico (Harmonic cabinet) by the Italian Jesuit scholar and collector Filippo was one of the earliest books to describe and illustrate every known musical instrument. It features ancient percussion instruments, early pipe organs, medieval lutes, and elaborate horns, as well as exotic instruments from the New World.

Filippo Buonanni

Gabinetto armonico pieno d'istromenti sonori
Rome, 1722

Smithsonian Libraries Collects

Illustrated Children’s Books

Stories can be powerful tools for learning. Smithsonian Libraries collects illustrated children’s books that offer diverse perspectives on history and culture. Written and illustrated by African American and American Indian authors and artists, these books are used both as teaching tools and objects of study at Smithsonian museums, including the Anacostia Community Museum.

Centuries of Struggle

Shauna Collier, a Smithsonian librarian, collected illustrated children’s books on African American history and culture for the Anacostia Community Museum Library.

Shauna Collier

Smithsonian librarian
Courtesy of Liz O’Brien

Sioux Stories

Professor H. Paul Friesema and his wife Jane were deeply committed to American Indian rights. They donated more than 25,000 books on American Indian culture, art, and history to the Smithsonian.

Jane R. and H. Paul Friesema

Courtesy of Jane Friesema

Among them is the Singing Sioux Cowboy Reader, an illustrated collection of poems in English and Dakota Sioux by Ann Nolan Clark, a teacher and advocate for American Indian children.

Kadir Nelson

Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans
New York, 2011

Heart and Soul traces the African American experience from slavery to the presidency of Barack Obama. The story is told from the perspective of an elderly African American woman, recounting her family’s history.

Ann Nolan Clark

Singing Sioux Cowboy Reader
Illustrated by Andrew Standing Soldier
Lawrence, Kans., 1947
From the library of H. Paul and Jane R. Friesema

Why Did He Collect?

James Howard Fraser

Librarian James Howard Fraser (1934–2013) had many interests, including graphic design, photography, and children’s books. He specialized in collecting Eastern European graphic design, including avant-garde Czech book designs from the years between World War I and II, a passion he shared with his cousin and benefactor Emma Joy Dana.

James Howard Fraser

Courtesy of the Fairleigh
Dickinson University Archive

Avant-Garde Book Designs

Czechoslovakia was a prolific center of avant-garde book design during the 1920s and ’30s, led by an influential group of poets, writers, artists, and designers. James Howard Fraser collected examples of book designs that spanned artistic movements, including Poetism, Constructivism, Surrealism, and Socialist Realism.

James Fraser was more than a collector, he was an explorer. His discovery of lost artifacts and documentation of them . . . increased scholarship in an area of art and politics that had long been ignored.

— Steven Heller, MFA Design Co-chair,
School of Visual Arts, New York

Karel Teige (ed.)

Prague, 1928

Leonid Leonov

Cesta na océan
[Road to the ocean]

Prague, 1936

Josef Čapek

Diktátorské boty
[The dictator’s boots]

Prague, 1937

B. Horneková, J. Vaněk, and Z. Rossmann (eds.)

Civilisovaná žena / Zivilisierte Frau
[The civilized woman]

Brno, Czechoslovakia, 1929

George Bernard Shaw

Obrácení Kapitána Brassbounda; přeložili Vladimir Procházka a Karel Mušek
[Captain Brassbound’s Conversion]

Prague, 1932

Jindřich Honzl

Sláva a bída divadel. Režisérův zápisník.
[The glory and poverty of the theaters. A director’s notebook.]

Prague, 1937