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Experts Corner: The Art of Collecting

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(The following is an interview from the May-June 2013 edition of the Library of Congress Magazine, LCM.)

Martha Kennedy, curator of “The Gibson Girl’s America: Drawings By Charles Dana Gibson,” discusses illustration art with Richard Kelly, curator of his collection of American illustration.

Martha Kennedy: You have developed a remarkable collection of illustration art along with a library that supports research in the field. Could you tell us a little about how and when you began building your collection?

Richard Kelly: The Kelly Collection of American Illustration got its start in 1987 when I bought a Mead Schaeffer painting from a friend of mine. Later that year, I bought a painting by Howard Pyle from an auction and the seeds were sown. Soon after that my focus changed—my taste “matured” entirely toward the older works and from then on my collecting centered entirely on Golden Age Illustration (1880-1930).

MK: What special subject interests, themes, and principles have guided you in the process of developing your collection?

RK: I was fortunate in that very early on I set some guidelines that gave the collection a more manageable focus. The collection is entirely American, and from the Golden Age time period. We don’t collect what is known as “pulp” or “pinup art” and have only a few children’s book illustrations or western-themed paintings. Within those parameters, we have tried to collect all of the important illustrators in both breadth and depth. We consistently focus on quality, trying to get the very best that each artist was capable of throughout his or her career.

MK: Could you share some thoughts on the impact of illustrators’ images of the “ideal woman” on the market economy at the turn-of-the-19th century?

RK: The improved printing technology of the 1890s began a boom in publishing periodicals in America, and images of the “ideal woman” quickly played a major role in decorating their pages. These idealized women graced the pages of American magazines and books and dominated our advertisements well into the 20th century.

MK: Have you found it useful to consult and view parts of the Library’s Cabinet of American Illustration as a resource over the years as you developed your collection? If so, how has it been useful?

RK: While I was an intern at the Library in the late 1990s, I was introduced to the Cabinet of American Illustration. I was astounded at the number of pieces in the collection and quickly realized it could help me in my own collecting. The quality of a piece can only be determined by a careful comparison within a broad range of an artist’s work. By comparing works that came up at auction with the vast holdings of those artists at the Library, I was able to more easily determine if they deserved a place in the Kelly Collection.

MK: What would you consider the strengths of the Cabinet of American Illustration?

RK: The major strength of the Cabinet of American Illustration is its enormous scope and size. With over 4,000 works, it is a major repository for this type of art. Additionally, almost all of the works were executed between 1890 and 1940, so virtually every illustrator working on paper during that period is represented here, most with multiple examples. As a result, the cabinet represents the major archive for important illustrators such as Gibson, Elizabeth Shippen Green, Joseph Pennell and Edward Penfield, as well as its extensive holdings of many other artists’ work.

MK: What are some of the ways you think American illustration art has contributed to America’s artistic legacy?

RK: In the late 19th century, illustrators in this country made the transition directly from easel painting to illustration. As a result, they devised a style that was more robust than that of their European counterparts, both powerful and distinctly American. Throughout the Golden Age of American Illustration, there were tens of thousands of quality works produced, all of which aesthetically conveyed the emotional impact of the stories and advertisements they illustrated. They provided countless Americans with an introduction to art available nowhere else in their everyday lives. Now those same illustrations give the visual detectives of today a clear window into the culture and values of this very exciting period in American history.

This article is featured in the May-June 2013 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine, LCM, now available for download here. You can also view the archives of the Library’s former publication from 1993 to 2011.


  1. I just purchased “The illustrating Modern Life”. I was very interested in your book. I own 2 Leyendeckers a pencil drawing by Flagg of my father, Willard Mullin the famous sports cartoonist. I also have a pen and ink by Al Dorne. It is of the board of directors of the Dutch Treat Club in NY. It depicts many famous people of the period such as Milton Caniff, Clarence Buddington Clelland, Bennet Cerf, Rube Goldberg, etc.

    I would love to see your collection. Do you ever let people see your collection? You evidently live in Northern Va.

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