Louis Marchesano, the Getty's curator of prints and drawings, gives a highly readable account of the origins of the art catalogue. In the eighteenth-century, the collection of the Düsseldorf prince Johann Wilhelm II von der Pfalz found its way into independent galleries, where its director began to hang the paintings thematically. After a series of failed attempts (bankruptcy seemed to be a recurring eighteenth-century problem), the court architect of Prince Johann's nephew printed up a "systematic overview" of the art collection.
Significantly, this catalogue was intended to do two things: publicize an art collection in order to raise the prestige of its owner, and to serve as an educational tool for artists and other members of the educated aristocracy. Each painting got an analysis and a printed reproduction. These days, catalogues of private collections are something of a rarity. Even large public collections rarely provide complete overviews in printed volumes, instead diverting their resources to chronicling their thematic or historical exhibitions and reserving their collections for websites (some well-designed, some not).
As for those exhibition catalogues, they vary tremendously in shape and size. We have coffee table tomes with rarely-read academic essays and lavish reproductions. We sometimes have splashy layouts with banal quotes, and we sometimes have multimedia extravaganzas. How, I wonder, will exhibitions and catalogues be presented in the future (near and distant) as tools like iPads gain currency?
19 minutes ago