- For Members
Paintings & Sculpture at the Boston Athenæum: A Brief History of the Collection
The Boston Athenæum has always been a center for the study and contemplation of the fine and decorative arts. In 1807, the year of the Athenæum’s founding, John Thornton Kirkland (1770-1840), president of Harvard and a founding Trustee of the Athenæum, set forth a plan by which the new institution would promote “a taste in the fine and pleasing arts” by collecting “specimens to serve for example and illustration.” These were to be gathered in a “Repository” that would be of two parts: “a MUSEUM or CABINET” containing “natural and artificial curiosities, antiques, coins, medals, vases, gems, and intaglios,” and “a REPOSITORY OF ARTS” consisting of “models of new and useful machines; . . . drawings, designs, paintings, engravings, statues, and other objects of the fine arts, and especially the production of our native artists.” These objects would “provide for the improvement and emulation of art, and for the correction and refinement of taste in those who aim to be connoisseurs and able to bestow praise and censure with discrimination.”
Thus the Athenæum’s collection of paintings and sculpture was born.
Today, the Boston Athenæum owns nearly 600 paintings and sculptures. It is an eclectic collection, not surprising since it was gathered over a 200-year period during most of which the institution had no clear collection policy (other than “collect everything”) and no curatorial eye to judge quality or assess historical significance. Nevertheless, the collection contains many objects of high quality, a number of masterworks, and even a small group of true masterpieces; many objects in the collection are by well-known or even famous artists. The collection is especially strong in portraits and neoclassical sculpture, but also includes some landscapes, genre works, and works with literary subject matter. The majority of the collection is American and dates from the nineteenth century, although the earliest object in the collection is from ancient Roman and the latest is a product of the twenty-first century. And some European artists, such as Annibale Carracci and Jean-Antoine Houdon, are represented here.
Most of the Athenæum’s early sculptural acquisitions were busts, typically of notables such as Alexander Hamilton (by American sculptor John Dixey) and John Adams (by sculptor John B. Binon). Indeed, the collection as it exists today contains many sculptures, including several masterpieces of the neoclassical style such as Horatio Greenough’s Venus Victrix of 1837-40, which was given to the collection in 1842, Thomas Crawford’s Adam and Eve of 1855, which has been here since 1867, and Harriet Hosmer’s Will o’ the Wisp, which was carved in Rome in about 1856 and came to the Athenæum twenty years later. Perhaps the greatest sculpted masterpieces at the Athenæum, however, are Jean-Antoine Houdon’s busts of Benjamin Franklin, the Marquis de Lafayette, and George Washington, all of which originally belonged to Thomas Jefferson and, until his death in 1826, were at Monticello. Sculptures from the later nineteenth century include John Quincy Adams Ward’s exquisite bronze Freedman of 1863 and Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s large marble relief portrait of Massachusetts governor Roger Walcott, carved in about 1901 and given to the Athenæum in 1949. Several masterpieces of twentieth-century sculpture were given to the Athenæum by its first female trustee, Susan Morse Hilles, in the 1970s. These include a visually and aurally fascinating kinetic work by George Rickey and a characteristic small, abstract bronze by Roy Gussow.
As is true in most other institutions of similar age and function, the Athenæum is replete with portraits. In fact, the Athenæum’s first commission for a contemporary painting, made in 1822, was for a portrait of the institution’s benefactor James Perkins ordered from Boston’s best-known artist of the day, Gilbert Stuart. Over the next decades, the Athenæum acquired a number of other fine portraits, including one of Benjamin West by Anglo-American painter Charles Robert Leslie and several more by Gilbert Stuart, notably a portrait of the Athenæum’s first librarian, William Smith Shaw, and an especially fine life portrait of Shaw’s uncle, John Adams. Stuart’s successor in the art world of Boston, Chester Harding, is also well represented here with full-length, life-size portraits of Daniel Webster and John Marshall as well as a charming portrait of Hannah Adams, one of the first women scholars to use the Athenæum’s library, all of which were painted around 1830. Another great masterpiece of American portraiture in the collection is Thomas Sully’s grand-manner image of early Athenæum benefactor Thomas Handasyd Perkins, painted for the Athenæum in 1831-32. Several portraits of artists, including Asher Durand’s of sculptor John Frazee and John Gadsby Chapman’s of Horatio Greenough, are in the collection, where they were joined in the late twentieth century by Polly (Ethel) Starr’s engaging self-portrait and, more recently, William McGregor Paxton’s portrait of his artist wife Elizabeth Okie.
Despite the Athenæum’s age and long traditional roots, its collection is not frozen in the nineteenth century. While art collecting was not the primary focus of the last century, a number of works with a modernist bent did find their way into the collection, including the sculptures by Rickey and Gussow mentioned above. Florine Stettheimer’s painting Morning (The White Curtains) came here as a gift of the artist's sister in 1954; Polly (Ethel) Thayer enhanced the collection with her evocative life-size portrait of her husband Donald Starr in 1995; and Allan R. Crite and Bradley Phillips, both decidedly contemporary genre and figure painters, gave more than one example of their work to the Athenæum in the last decades of the century. Since 2000, paintings by Gifford Beal, William Kienbusch, and George Nick, and sculptures by Leonard Baskin and Albert Wein have been acquired.
One more important historical aspect of the Athenæum’s art collection should be mentioned: As was true for many cultural institutions in the nineteenth century, when it came to collecting three-dimensional objects (other than books), one of the Athenæum’s main early interests was casts, that is, fine copies, mostly made of plaster, of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture. This collecting phenomenon—so often forgotten or ignored in modern histories of American art—began at the Athenæum in 1817 when architect Solomon Willard donated casts of the famous classical sculptures of the Laocőon and the Dying Gaul. Five years later, art collector Augustus Thorndike gave the Library eight full-size and three small casts, including copies of the Apollo Belvedere, the Borghese Gladiator, and the Venus de Medici. One can still see fine copies of classical sculpture at the Athenæum. These include a rare, superb marble copy of the Venus de Medici, which entered the collection in 1861, and a beautiful full-size marble copy of the head of the Apollo Belvedere, which was made in Italy in the late eighteenth century and joined the Athenæum’s collection in 1824.
The Athenæum acquired copies of famous or at least interesting paintings, too, beginning in its early years. In fact, the first painting to enter the Athenæum’s collection was a copy by an unknown artist of a small but superb portrait of King Kamehameha of the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands, given to the Library in 1818. This was joined by fine copies of works by Correggio, Guido Reni, and Peter Paul Rubens, which remain in the collection today.
In 1849, when the Boston Athenæum opened the doors of its large, then modern building at the peculiar address of 10 ½ Beacon Street, its Trustees expressed their pride in their achievements by commissioning a comprehensive history of the institution from no less a figure than the erudite Josiah Quincy, former president of both the Athenæum and Harvard and a mayor of Boston. In that remarkable document, Quincy proclaimed this pride in language that could hardly be bested. “It is impossible to witness this great result,” he rightfully boasted, "without feelings of gratitude, and expressions of congratulation, that our lot is cast in a community able by its capital, and willing by the spirit of individual citizens, to uphold such a literary institution amidst the vicissitudes and occasional embarrassments to which, through the changes of the times, it has been subjected; and to raise it, at length, to a height of resources and power, on which it is apparently placed beyond the reach of future accident;—thus, by the experience of the past, justifying a confident hope, or rather giving a firm assurance, that ever hereafter its stores will be increased, and its means enlarged, in proportion to the literary claims and wants of an intellectual and prosperous community."
David B. Dearinger
Susan Morse Hilles Curator of Paintings & Sculpture