Since the 1820s, the Boston Athenæum has, among other things, functioned as a museum. In fact, until its own trustees took the lead in founding a dedicated art museum in Boston in the 1870s, the Athenæum single-handedly filled that role in the city. Following what would soon become standard museum practice, the Athenæum pursued its mission, from the start, in two ways: by regularly mounting exhibitions of contemporary and historical art, and by collecting objects to form a permanent collection.
As was typical of the time, the Athenæum’s earliest significant acquisitions were fine plaster casts and, on occasion, superb marble copies of famous ancient sculptures such as the Apollo Belvedere, the Venus de’ Medici, and the Discobolus, several of which remain in the collection today. Old master paintings or, more likely, professional copies of them, especially those of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, were also desirable, and the Athenæum quickly assembled a small but excellent group of these. Again, a number of these have survived, including fine copies of works by Correggio, Guido Reni, Rembrandt, and Rubens as well as original paintings by Annibale Carracci, Gregorio Lazzarini, Giovanni Paolo Panini, and Francesco Zuccarelli. Contemporary European sculpture also made its way into the collection. Notable here are several busts by the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon that came to the Athenæum from the collection of the late Thomas Jefferson, as well as other works by the Italian sculptor Luigi Persico and the British sculptors Francis Chantrey and Joseph Nollekens.
True leadership in collecting for the Athenæum came when the institution actively pursued contemporary American painting and sculpture. The second and third quarters of the nineteenth century were especially active at the Athenæum in this regard. During these years, the institution bought or commissioned paintings by some of the leading American artists of the day including Washington Allston, Chester Harding, Henry Inman, Rembrandt Peale, Gilbert Stuart, and Thomas Sully. Later, important additions would be made to this early group with works by John Singleton Copley, Thomas Doughty, Cephas Thompson, William Trost Richards, and John Singer Sargent.
At the same time, the Athenaeum was building a particularly strong collection of American sculpture. During the antebellum years, Bostonians had a penchant for neoclassic sculpture and this is reflected at the Athenæum in fine examples by Horatio Greenough, Thomas Crawford, and Hiram Powers, as well as with works by their contemporaries and followers Benjamin Paul Akers, Thomas Ball, Shobal Clevenger, Henry Dexter, John Frazee, Harriet Hosmer, Chauncey Bradley Ives, John Adams Jackson, and William Wetmore Story. This tradition has continued at the Athenæum with acquisitions works by later nineteenth-century sculptors such as John Quincy Adams Ward, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and Daniel Chester French, and those of the twentieth, from Katharine Lane Weems to Leonard Baskin.
Appropriately, the Boston Athenæum continues to actively acquire works of art relevant to its history and to its existing collections. Since the year 2000 over fifty additional paintings and sculptures have been added to collection. These include nineteenth-century works by Francis Alexander, Thomas Ball, Asher Brown Durand, George Fuller, Chester Harding, Richard Henry Parks, and William McGregor Paxton, as well as twentieth-century ones by Gifford Beal, Allan Rohan Crite, Alexander Brooks, George Deem, Leo Friedlander, Bashka Paeff, John Sloan, Polly Thayer, and Albert Wein. Collectively, these recent acquisitions represent most of the major genres of western art, namely portraiture, landscape, cityscape, genre, and still-life. As has always been the case at the Athenæum, they have come to it either as gifts from donors interested in the institution, its traditions, and its role in the community, or as carefully considered purchases made by the institution’s professional art curators and vetted by its administration and trustees.
These acquisitions bring the total number of paintings and sculptures in the Athenæum’s collection today to over 550.