Samuel Putnam Avery was an American print-publisher, collector and philanthopist. He married Mary Ann Ogden and together they had two sons, Samuel P. Avery jr (1847-1920) who also became an art dealer and collector, and Henry Ogden Avery (1852-90) who studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris (1852-90) and worked as an architect.
Avery trained as a copperplate engraver for a bank note company, and in the early 1840s began to work as a wood-engraver for Appleton's, the New York Herald and Harper's Magazine. He also produced illustrations for trade cards, religious tracts and children's adventure stories. By the late 1850s he had begun to collect drawings and small paintings by local artists, and in 1864 he became one of the first art dealers in America.
Avery was appointed the Art Commissioner for the United States at the French International Exhibition in 1867. It was at that time that Avery met JW and it was through him that a selection of JW's etchings and four paintings (Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge (YMSM 33), Wapping (YMSM 35), Symphony in White, No. I: The White Girl (YMSM 38) and Crepuscule in Flesh Colour and Green: Valparaiso (YMSM 73)) were shown. Avery himself came to own a number of works by JW, including Portrait of Whistler with Hat (YMSM 23), Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother (YMSM 101), Subject Unknown (YMSM 157), Portrait of Mr Mann (YMSM 158), Sketch for 'Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony' (M.319), Sketch of Maud (M.497), Three Peacock shutters (M.580) and Fighting Peacocks (M.581). In 1872 JW sent Avery a photograph of Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother (YMSM 101) by J. R. Parsons that showed the picture before it darkened. In 1874 he was responsible for the publishing in New York of the first catalogue of JW's etchings compiled by Ralph Thomas. As Secretary of the Union League Club, he organised the earliest exhibitions of JW's oils and etchings in America. Indeed, Avery was one of the first to make JW's etchings known in America and was responsible for introducing his work to patrons of some significance. The two men were in correspondence throughout the 1870s and into the 1880s.
Before leaving New York, Avery had liquidated his collection in order to buy works of art abroad. With the assistance of George A. Lucas, he not only bought works by Whistler but commissioned paintings from such artists as William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Jules Breton, Jean-Leon Gerôme and Ernest Meissonier. He made annual buying trips to Europe during the 1870s. His diaries provide valuable insight into the European art market. When Avery auctioned his acquisitions in New York, a large number of his works were bought by William Henry Vanderbilt, also a patron of Whistler.
Avery was a founder member and lifelong trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from 1872 and donated a number of American pictures from his collection. He was instrumental in establishing a separate print room at the New York Public Library in December 1899, and presented it in 1900 with a gift of over 19,000 prints. He bequeathed part of his book collection to the Avery Architectural Library at Columbia University, New York, in memory of his son Henry.
Monneret, S., L'Impressionisme et son époque, Paris, 1978-79; Thomas, Ralph, A Catalogue of the Etchings and Drypoints of James Abbott MacNeil Whistler, London, 1874; Beaufort, Madeleine Fidell , Herbert L. Kleinfield and Jeanne K. Welcher (eds), The Diaries, 1871-1882, of Samuel P. Avery, Art Dealer, New York, 1979; Usher, Elizabeth R., Samuel P. Avery 1822-1904: Pioneer American Art Dealer, exhibition catalogue, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1979; Sieben-Morgan, R., Samuel Putnam Avery (1822-1904), Engraver on Wood: A Bio-bibliographical Study, MLS dissertation, Columbia University, New York, 1940; Young, Andrew McLaren, Margaret F. MacDonald, Robin Spencer and Hamish Miles, The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler, New Haven and London, 1980; McClinton, K. M., 'Letters of American Artists to Samuel P. Avery', Apollo, vol. 120, 1984, pp. 182-87; MacDonald, Margaret F., James McNeill Whistler. Drawings, Pastels and Watercolours. A Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 1995; Fidell-Beaufort, Madeleine, 'Samuel P. Avery', The Grove Dictionary of Art Online, ed. L. Macy, http://www.groveart.com (accessed 21 May 2002).