Volume 20, Issue 2 | Summer 2021

Duveen and the Commercial Art Gallery: Project Narrative

by Anne Helmreich, Edward Sterrett, and Sandra van Ginhoven, with contributions from Elena Prado

Scholarly Essay|Project Narrative

This project began with the discovery of a nearly complete set of architectural prints for the first purpose-built gallery for the Duveen Brothers, the renowned art dealers, in the United States. The prints are housed in the archives of interior designers and frequent Duveen Brothers business partners, Carlhian & Beaumetz, now in the collections of the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, California. The building was destroyed in 1952, leaving the architectural prints as one of the only documents that can provide a detailed and schematically comprehensive picture of the premises. As one of the earliest purpose-built galleries in the US belonging to one of the most important art dealers of the time, the building offers a unique opportunity to consider the ways in which the principles and business strategies of late Gilded Age art dealers were embodied in architecture specifically designed to facilitate their business. The construction and projection of a carefully cultivated ambience was central to an art dealer of the Duveen Brothers’ status. Indeed, in many ways the Duveen Brothers’ business was not simply to supply art objects to a wealthy clientele but to stage impressions of luxury, wealth, erudition, and status through their domestic interiors. How could the architectural prints of the Duveen Brothers’ first purpose-built US gallery help us to better understand the dealer’s share in constructing the sensibility of late Gilded Age luxury?

Project Background

We understood that to engage with the topic of ambiance in relation to space most likely meant employing reconstruction, that is, helping ourselves and our readers visualize and, through that visualization, understand the space. The need to reconstruct was particularly pressing because the building no longer exists today. But what type or modality of reconstruction was most appropriate for the questions we wanted to pursue?

Early on in our investigation, Anne Helmreich had the benefit of a scholarly discussion with Lisa Snyder, the Office of Information Technology’s director of Campus Research Initiatives, acting director of the Research and Technology Group, and manager of GIS, Visualization, and Modeling Group within the Research and Technology Group at the University of California, Los Angeles. Snyder, a specialist in interactive computer models of historic urban environments and lead developer of VSim, a software interface that provides users with the ability to craft narratives in three-dimensional space, recommended focusing on function and circulation in the context of reconstruction, which could be best explored through volumetric space analysis. In other words, our research questions did not demand, for example, developing a fully detailed simulation of the original space.

To undertake this volumetric space analysis, we commissioned Elena Prado, a 3-D design consultant, to develop a three-dimensional model of the Duveen Brothers’ first purpose-built gallery in New York that would be based closely on existing primary source materials, namely the blueprints for the building deposited in the Carlhian records, 1867–1988, at the Getty Research Institute (GRI).‍[1]

Preparing the Data

The Carlhian firm was an interior design firm, based in Paris, that worked on several collaborative projects with the Duveen Brothers (and were concomitantly potential competitors). Their records of plans and drawings, now housed at the GRI, include the blueprints for the Duveen Brothers’ gallery, ca. 1911, prepared by René Sergent and Horace Trumbauer. Eight of the blueprints had been previously digitized in an earlier GRI initiative; the remaining twenty-one were scanned and added to the digital archives. Seven of these blueprints became the skeleton for the initial virtual model that we built in SketchUp, in which the respective plans and elevations became the floors and walls themselves. We decided to use this as the basis for our subsequent models because, by integrating the blueprints themselves into the model as opposed to using them only to derive information to be represented in the model, we were also able to incorporate into the visualization the additional notations provided by the designers for the uses or functions of the spaces, as well as materials to be used in designated areas. These blueprints also serve as reminders to our audience of the source material on which our analysis is based, functioning in many ways like a citation in a scholarly article.

Technical Work and Platforms

Discovery Phase

To initiate the project, we selected the CAD software Rhino for its capacity not only to render three-dimensional models but also to edit and analyze within the platform. This allowed the project to proceed iteratively and to advance from broad outlines to increasing granularity. Throughout this discovery phase, we were seeking an appropriate balance between fidelity to our primary source documents (namely, the blueprints as well as contemporaneous photographic representations of the gallery interiors and exterior) and the ability to answer our research questions. We explored the feasibility of answering such questions as the role of light in the building, materiality, and functionality. We additionally asked where we had enough evidence from which to draw definitive conclusions and also warrant the deployment of digital resources. We found that available digital technologies could allow us to create a highly plausible yet speculative model of the Duveen Brothers’ gallery. But we were concerned that a fine-grained recreation of the gallery could seduce viewers into perceiving the visualization as a simulacrum of the original space. Therefore, our desired outcomes were always carefully termed as models, mock-ups, or axonometric circulation diagrams.

In sum, we advocated aligning the method of analysis with the questions posed. A virtual simulation, a very costly endeavor, should only be undertaken when the documentary evidence can support that level of granularity and the methodology is required to advance leading research questions. With today’s digital tools, fidelity in digital reconstructions is highly feasible, but fidelity is not necessarily the appropriate goal for every reconstruction project. In our case, we were seeking to understand how space was experienced by visitors to the Duveen Brothers’ gallery. We recognize that we can never truly reconstruct what it felt like to be a visitor—replete with the sounds, smells, and other sensory data that constitute an experience in New York’s urban environment, compounded by memories of previous experiences—at any particular moment in the history of Duveens’ built environment.‍[2] Thus, it seemed inappropriate to strive for high fidelity, which might create the illusion of simulating that irrecoverable historic experience. Instead, we chose to focus on those components essential to understanding or analyzing that experience, as opposed to recreating it.

Exploratory Phase

Once the Rhino model was stabilized, meaning it had been successively reiterated and refined to the desired point of accuracy and visual communication, it was then exported into SketchUp in order to facilitate an exploratory phase of research, wherein each author was able to navigate and manipulate their own version of the model. While the discovery phase focused on finding possible pathways forward for the project, the exploration phase was for analytical purposes. SketchUp was chosen for its relative ease of use and access in comparison to Rhino. During this exploratory phase, we experimented with establishing, sequencing, and annotating a series of points of view that would help us to address our leading research questions and the narratological analysis that we were beginning to assemble.

Initially, we produced first-person-point-of-view walk throughs of the space, but quickly realized that these were extremely disorienting for our purposes. Instead, we learned that circulatory pathways were better revealed through diagrammatic means. This meant thinking of the model as a series of layers or divisible spaces in which we could toggle walls and floors on and off (make visible or invisible) in order to best visualize specific aspects of the circulatory pathways of visitors and staff—the two chief constituents we wanted to address through our model. We experimented with how to represent pathways to reinforce the narratives that we were developing in the text. Similarly, by separating and color coding the volumetric representations of each room according to its functionalities, we were able to develop a concise visualization of the layout of the building as a whole and the relationships between the different spaces within it.

As in the earlier phase of the project, the team worked iteratively on the exploratory phase, maintaining a constant dialogue between the primary source documentation and research questions. During this process, we found that manipulating the three-dimensional model was essential to understand the circulatory pathways and room functionalities because it added crucial spatial information that was not always evident in the two-dimensional blueprints. At the same time, we also realized that sharing the model with a reader in an open, self-navigable format would not be an effective way to demonstrate the core findings of our research. While it is fascinating to manipulate the model freely once you become familiar with the platform and its affordances, we determined, based on our own experiences, that the learning curve was too steep for the average user and concluded that our readers would be better served by a series of animations guiding the reader through the model.

Animation Phase

The exploratory phase resulted in many refinements, including ensuring that all the measurements and spatial organizations aligned to available information; isolating, grouping, and color coding various elements; adding indicators and keys; as well as jettisoning a number of virtual elements in the original model, such as interior walls, that did not serve our purposes. These refinements were incorporated back into the original model developed in Rhino in the discovery phase. We then used Adobe’s digital visual effects program After Effects to animate directional arrows illustrating the circulatory pathways. Individual recordings of the model were subsequently exported into Adobe’s video-editing program, Premiere Pro, used to develop the animations intended to guide the viewer through the model.

Refining the animations was also an iterative process. The first stage focused on designing the appropriate virtual camera angles and trajectories in such a way as to maintain an easy sense of orientation for the viewer while providing the maximum degree of clarity and visibility of the elements that were being displayed. A second stage focused on clarifying the relationship between the animation trajectories and the argument being developed in the text. Sequencing and timing, as well as refining the captions used within the animations, were particularly important at this stage in order to clearly demonstrate the core findings of our research.

Lessons Learned

  1. Let your research questions drive your technological choices.
  2. Just because it is technologically feasible does not mean it should be done.
  3. Quality checks must be part of your project development schedule.
  4. Iterate, iterate, iterate.
  5. Independently verify your results.
  6. Collaborate: art historians must learn the language of technology and technologists must learn the language of humanistic inquiry.


[1] The Finding Aid for the Collection can be found here: “Carlhian records, 1867–1988,” Getty Research Institute, accessed September 14, 2020, http://archives2.getty.edu:8082/.

[2] With acknowledgement of Pamela Fletcher’s ongoing research into the memory experiences associated with gallery spaces in the context of Victorian London.