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Arensberg Archives

Identifier: WLA

Scope and Contents

The Arensberg Archives contain correspondence, ephemera, clippings, writings, art collection and personal records, and photographs created and collected by Walter and Louise Arensberg, as well as some material created on the couple's behalf by their secretary and the staff of the Francis Bacon Foundation. Through letters with contemporary artists, art dealers, museums, galleries, and publishers emerges a vivid picture of how the Arensbergs built and maintained one of the most important collections of Modern and Pre-Columbian art in the 20th century, particularly from the early 1930s to the early 1950s. Magazine and newspaper clippings; exhibition announcements, invitations, and catalogs; loan forms with various museums and galleries; tax and financial records; a card catalog; and photographs further illustrate how the Arensbergs acquired, cataloged, loaned, conserved, and administered their art collection. Countless letters are preserved from admirers wishing to visit the Arensbergs' Hollywood, California home to view the art collection. In more cases than not, a response from Walter Arensberg granting permission is also preserved. Also included is a significant amount of legal and financial material documenting the Arensbergs' negotiations with the Francis Bacon Foundation, the University of California at Los Angeles, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, as well as several other institutions to find a suitable permanent home for the art collection. Walter Arensberg took a proactive role in promoting modern art in California, as demonstrated by records related to his role in the founding and administration of the short-lived Modern Institute of Art in Beverly Hills.

The material also offers a picture, albeit somewhat limited, of Walter Arensberg's professional interests in avant-garde poetry, the Bacon-Shakespeare controversy, and cryptography. The collection includes manuscripts for several experimental, unpublished poems and essays written by Walter Arensberg probably between 1915-1921, many in collaboration with Marcel Duchamp. At least one of these incorporates titles from Duchamp's readymades. Correspondence with John Covert, Walter's cousin, document his interest in cryptography, and Walter discusses his Baconian research and his research institute, the Francis Bacon Foundation, in several letters.

A significant amount of correspondence with economist John Nef, artists Marcel Duchamp and Charles Sheeler, and art dealer and Armory Show organizer Walter Pach, for example, demonstrate the variety of intellectuals with whom the Arensbergs' maintained close and long-term friendships. Countless other notable figures of the 20th century also crossed the Arensbergs' paths, ranging from literary figures, such as Arthur Cravan, to actors, such as Vincent Price, and these encounters are recorded in the Arensbergs' correspondence and photographs. The collection also includes a significant amount of correspondence with and experimental poetry of Elmer Ernest Southard, an important psychiatrist and neuropathologist, who was Walter's close friend and classmate from Harvard University. Walter received this material upon Southard's death in 1920, and he kept it for the rest of his life.


  • 1905-1957, undated


Language of Materials

Predominantly in English; some material in French, German, Spanish.

Conditions Governing Access

The collection is open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

The Arensberg Archives are the physical property of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Archives. The Museum holds literary rights only for material created by Museum personnel or given to the Museum with such rights specifically assigned. For all other material, literary rights, including copyright, belong to the authors or their legal heirs and assigns. Researchers are responsible for obtaining permission from rights holders for publication and for other purposes where stated.

Biographical / Historical

Art collectors Walter and Louise Arensberg were friends with some of the most important artists of the 20th century, and as such, played an integral role in the formulation and promulgation of avant-garde artistic ideas and activities in the United States. Walter Arensberg (1878-1954) was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the oldest child of Conrad Christian Arensberg and his second wife, Flora Belle Covert. Walter's father was President and partial owner of a successful Pittsburgh crucible company. Between 1896 and 1900, Walter attended Harvard University. Following graduation, he traveled to Europe, where he spent at least two years. In 1903, he returned to Harvard, as a graduate student. He did not complete his degree, but rather moved to New York City to work as a cub reporter from 1904-1906.

Louise Arensberg (1879-1953) was born Mary Louise Stevens in Dresden, Germany, to John Edward Stevens and his wife, Harriet Louisa. In 1882, the family relocated to Ludlow, Massachusetts, where Louise's father worked in his in-law's textile manufacturing business, eventually amassing the fortune Louise would use to finance the Arensbergs' art collection. Louise studied music and attended finishing school in Dresden. On June 26, 1907, she married Walter, a Harvard classmate of her brother Sidney.

Initially, the couple settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they purchased and renovated Shady Hill, the former home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and later Charles Eliot Norton. There, Walter pursued a career as a poet, publishing his first volume, Poems, in 1914. The Arensbergs' traveled to New York in 1913 to view the International Exhibition of Modern Art (Armory Show), where Walter purchased an Edouard Vuillard lithograph. He later returned the work during the Boston venue of the exhibition, purchasing instead lithographs by Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin, as well as a small painting by Jacques Villon. Henceforth, the Arensbergs would dedicate their time, energy and money to amassing a seminal collection of twentieth-century art.

In 1914, the Arensbergs relocated to New York City, renting an apartment at 33 West 67th Street. Between 1915 and 1921, they collected approximately 70 more works of art, including that of various French and American avant-garde artists who they befriended. The Arensbergs became particularly close with Marcel Duchamp, who lived in their apartment during the summer of 1915 while they vacationed at their summer home in Pomfret, Connecticut. They would become the artist's life-long patrons and form the largest, most significant collection of his work.

During these years, the Arensbergs' apartment served almost nightly as a gathering place for artists, intellectuals, and writers, including John Covert, Arthur Cravan, Jean and Yvonne Crotti, Charles Demuth, Marcel Duchamp, Albert Gleizes, Mina Loy, Allen and Louise Norton, Francis Picabia, Henri-Pierre Roché, Pitts Sanborn, Morton Schamberg, Charles Sheeler, Joseph Stella, Wallace Stevens, Elmer Ernst Southard, Carl Van Vechten, Edgard Varèse, William Carlos Williams, and Beatrice Wood. Through these intellectual exchanges emerged such important art movements and developments as New York Dada, the Society of Independent Artists, and The Others Group of poets. Amongst these influences, Walter pursued his interest in poetry and his other literary interest, cryptography. In early 1921, he published The Cryptography of Dante, and the next year The Cryptography of Shakespeare. Walter sought to interpret both authors through the analysis of puns, acrostics, and anagrams. For the rest of his life, Walter avidly pursued the Shakespeare-Bacon controversy in the hopes of using cryptography to establish incontrovertible evidence that Sir Francis Bacon was the real author of the Shakespeare's plays, poems and other writings.

In 1921, upon Louise's insistence, the couple relocated to Hollywood, California. While the move was originally intended to be temporary, the Arensbergs remained in California for the rest of their lives, returning to New York for only a year between 1925 and 1926. In September 1927, the Arensbergs purchased their permanent home at 7065 Hillside Avenue.

Once in California, the Arensbergs quickly re-established their importance in the art world. By 1922, they began lending works to galleries and museums for exhibitions. They felt strongly that the public should have an opportunity to view works in the hands of private individuals, and thus were very generous in making loans, limiting, but never ceasing, their cooperation only after several of their works were damaged. Their Hillside Avenue house also served as an ad-hoc museum. Almost anyone who sought permission was granted a visit to their home to view their art collection. The Arensbergs also played an active role in many art associations. Walter served as a board member of the Los Angeles Art Association (1937), Los Angeles County Museum (1938-1939), and the Southwest Museum (1944-1954). In addition, he was a founding board member of the short-lived American Arts in Action (1943) and the Modern Institute of Art, Beverly Hills (1947-1949), organizations dedicated to showing modern art in California. The Arensbergs were among the Modern Institute of Art's biggest supporters, lending generously to its exhibitions and providing financial assistance. Despite this, and the support of many Hollywood notables, including Vincent Price and Edward G. Robinson, the Institute failed.

Through the 1930s and 1940s, the Arensbergs continued to build their art collection, buying primarily modern art and non-Western artifacts as well as some Oriental rugs, Byzantine and Renaissance paintings, and American folk art. They expanded their modern collection to include works by Surrealists such as Max Ernst and Salvador Dalí; the Blue-Four (acquired through the group's American agent Galka Scheyer); and contemporary Mexican artists, including Diego Rivera and Rufino Tamayo. They also acquired additional work by Marcel Duchamp whenever possible. In addition, the Arensbergs collected Pre-Columbian stone and ceramic sculptures, many bought from their friend and next-door neighbor, the dealer Earl Stendahl, from 1940 onwards.

In 1937, Walter Arensberg organized the Francis Bacon Foundation; a non-profit educational and research institute dedicated to the study of Francis Bacon. In 1939, the Foundation became the legal owner of the Walter and Louise Arensberg art collection, an arrangement agreeable to the Arensbergs for both financial and ideological reasons. The Arensbergs maintained that the so-called Baconian method for the interpretation of nature was also applicable to the interpretation of art (Walter Arensberg to Kenneth Ross, unpublished interview, circa 1948).

In the 1940s the Arensbergs began to look for a permanent home for their collection. In 1944, the Arensbergs signed a deed of gift with the University of California, Los Angeles, which included the stipulation that the University build an appropriate museum to house the collection in a specified time frame. By the fall of 1947 it was obvious that this condition would not be met and the contract was nullified. The Arensbergs then began negotiations with numerous other institutions, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Denver Art Museum, Harvard University, the Honolulu Academy of Arts, the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes (Mexico, D.F.), the National Gallery, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Art, Stanford University, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Minnesota. The Arensbergs eventually dropped their demand that the recipient of the collection also provide for the continuance of Walter's Francis Bacon Foundation. After protracted discussions and many visits from Director Fiske Kimball and his wife Marie, the Arensbergs presented their collection of over 1000 objects to the Philadelphia Museum of Art on December 27, 1950. On November 25, 1953, Louise died of cancer. Walter lived only a few months longer, passing away on January 29, 1954 from a heart attack. Neither lived long enough to see the opening of their collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on October 16, 1954.

Works Consulted

  1. The Open Eye: In Pursuit of Art (New York, 1971): 56-64. Kuh, Katharine"Walter Arensberg and Marcel Duchamp."
  2. (New York : Abrams, 1994). Naumann, Francis M.New York Dada, 1915-23.
  3. Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin, xxvi.328 (1980): 2-32. Naumann, Francis M."Walter Conrad Arensberg: Poet, Patron, and Participant in the New York Avant-garde."
  4. The Grove Dictionary of Art Online, ed. L. Macy (Accessed 14 December 2001 ). Sawelson-Gorse, Naomi"Arensberg."
  5. (M.A. thesis, Riverside, University of California, 1987). Sawelson-Gorse, Naomi'For the Want of a Nail': The Disposition of the Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection.
  6. (Ph.D. thesis, Santa Barbara, University of California, 1994). Sawelson-Gorse, NaomiMarcel Duchamp's 'Silent Guard' : A Critical Study of Louise and Walter Arensberg


33 linear feet


Art collectors Walter and Louise Arensberg amassed a seminal collection of modern and Pre-Columbian art between 1913 and 1950, when they presented it to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Arensberg Archives contain correspondence, ephemera, clippings, writings, personal and art collection records, and photographs documenting the couple's art collecting activities as well as their friendship with many important artists, writers and scholars, including Marcel Duchamp, Charles Sheeler, Walter Pach, Beatrice Wood, and Elmer Ernest Southard. The collection also includes some material related to Walter Arensberg's study of Francis Bacon and the founding of his research institute, the Francis Bacon Foundation.


The arrangement of the Arensberg Archives is based as much as possible on the original order of the records maintained by the Arensbergs and their assistants. The preliminary arrangement of the records was completed by Naomi Sawelson-Gorse, former archivist of the Francis Bacon Foundation, on an intermittent basis between 1986 and 1990, and included three series: Correspondence and Printed Material, Photographs, and Clippings. Her arrangement was based on first-hand information about how the Arensbergs maintained their records gained through the Arensbergs' long-time assistant and President of the Francis Bacon Foundation, Elizabeth Wrigley. The current arrangement adds four additional series--Art Collection, Writings, Personal Records, Elmer Ernest Southard--and makes Ephemera (i.e., Printed Material) a separate series. These changes were necessary to accommodate additional material received in 1996 as well as material transferred from the Department of Prints, Drawings and Photographs in 2001.

Custodial History

The collection was acquired in three major parts. Ephemera and some correspondence was given to the museum by the Francis Bacon Foundation in December 1950, simultaneously with the presentation of the Arensberg Art Collection, and received between 1953-1954. A second installment of this initial gift, containing the Arensbergs’ correspondence pertaining to their art collection, miscellaneous photographs, catalogues, and clippings, was transferred to the museum by the Francis Bacon Foundation in 1972. Additional personal correspondence and photographs, a card catalog to the Arensberg Art Collection, writings, and the papers of Elmer Ernest Southard, were transferred from the Francis Bacon Foundation to the museum in 1996. This material was formally given to the museum in 2001 by the Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery, which had received the material as part of a larger gift from the Francis Bacon Foundation in 1995.


2001. The following items were given by Naomi Sawelson-Gorse from Elizabeth Wrigley's estate: one Photostat of the cover of Filippo Tammaso Marinetti's Zang Tumb Tumb (October 1912); a card catalog record for "La Jolle Scene" by Bartlett; a photograph of Grace Clements' "Untitled" (1913) drawing.

Processing Information

These materials were arranged and described by Katherine Stefko, Katy Rawdon, and Adrianna Del Collo in 2006. Funded by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Guide to the Arensberg Archives
Finding aid prepared by Katherine Stefko, Katy Rawdon, and Adrianna Del Collo.
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Funded by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

Repository Details

Part of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Library and Archives Repository

Philadelphia Museum of Art
PO Box 7646
Philadelphia PA 19101-7646 United States