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Since the 1820s, the Boston Athenæum has, among other things, functioned as an art museum. In fact, until its own trustees took the lead in founding, in the 1870s, an institution that would eventually dedicate itself to the fine arts in Boston, the Athenæum single-handedly filled that role in the city. Following what would later become standard museum practice, the Athenæum pursued its mission 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, examples 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 after Correggio (1489-1534), Guido Reni (1575-1642), Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), and Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) as well as original paintings by Annibale Carracci (1560-1609), Gregorio Lazzarini (1653-1730), Giovanni Paolo Panini (1691-1765), and Francesco Zuccarelli (1702-1788). Contemporary European sculpture also made its way into the collection. Notable here are several busts by the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828) that came to the Athenæum from the collection of the late Thomas Jefferson, as well as other works by the Italian sculptor Luigi Persico (1791-1860) and the British sculptors Francis Chantrey (1781-1841) and Joseph Nollekens (1737-1823).

True leadership in collecting for the Athenæum came when the institution actively pursued contemporary American paintings and sculptures. 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 (1779-1843), Chester Harding (1792-1886), Henry Inman (1801-1846), Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860), Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828), and Thomas Sully (1783-1872). Later, important additions would be made to this early group with works by John Singleton Copley (1738-1815), Thomas Doughty (1793-1856), Cephas Thompson (1775-1856), William Trost Richards (1833-1905), and John Singer Sargent (1856-1925).

At the same time, the Athenaeum was building a particularly strong collection of American sculpture. During the antebellum years, Bostonians had a penchant for neoclassical sculpture and this is reflected at the Athenæum in examples by Thomas Crawford (1813-1857), Horatio Greenough (1805-1852), and Hiram Powers (1805-1873), as well as in works by their contemporaries and followers such as Thomas Ball (1819-1911), Shobal Vail Clevenger (1812-1843), Henry Dexter (1806-1876), John Frazee (1790-1852), Harriet Hosmer (1830-1908), Chauncey Bradley Ives (1810-1894), and William Wetmore Story (1819-1895). This tradition has continued at the Athenæum with more recent acquisitions of marbles and bronzes by late-nineteenth- and twentieth-century sculptors such as Leonard Baskin (1922-2000), Daniel Chester French (1850-1931), Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907), John Quincy Adams Ward (1830-1910), and Katharine Lane Weems (1899-1989).

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 the collection. These include nineteenth-century works by Francis Alexander (1800-1880), Thomas Ball, Asher Brown Durand (1796-1886), George Fuller (1822-1884), Chester Harding, William McGregor Paxton (1869-1941), and Edmund Tarbell (1862-1938), as well as twentieth-century ones by Gifford Beal (1879-1956), Allan Rohan Crite (1910-2007), Alexander Brooks (1898-1980), George Deem (1932-2008), Leo Friedlander (1888-1966), Walker Hancock (1901-1998), Bashka Paeff (1894-1979), Bradley Phillips (1929-1991), John Sloan (1871-1951), Polly Thayer (1904-2006), Wayne Thiebaud (b. 1920), Albert Wein (1915-1991), and Maxine Yalovitz-Blankenship (b. 1928). Collectively, these recent acquisitions represent most of the major genres of western art: portraiture, landscape, cityscape, genre, and still-life. As has always been the case at the Athenæum, these and other works 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 nearly 600. You will find basic information—artist’s name, title, date, etc.—for each of these objects here. In addition, for a representative group of them, you will find brief historical descriptions or longer scholarly essays written by the Athenaeum’s art curators or other leading American art historians and curators. This group of highlighted works with expanded information will be enhanced from time to time; and new acquisitions will be featured as well. So we hope you will consult this section of the Athenaeum’s website often and allow us to share with you some of the gems of the institution’s historic and ever-growing collections. We also invite inquiries about the collection and the artists represented here by email at dearinger@bostonathenaeum.org.

David B. Dearinger, Ph.D.
Director of Exhibitions and Susan Morse Hilles
Senior Curator of Paintings & Sculpture

William Morris Hunt (1824 - 1879)
William McGregor Paxton (1869 - 1941)
Maxine Yalovitz-Blankenship
Alexander Brook (1898 - 1980)
Annibale Carracci (Italian, 1560 - 1609)
Gilbert Stuart (American, 1755 - 1828)
Augustus Saint-Gaudens (American, 1848 - 1907)
Giovanni Paolo Panini (Italian, 1691 - 1765)
Thomas Crawford (American, 1813 - 1857)
Roy Gussow (1918 - 2011)
Florine Stettheimer (1871 - 1944)
Allan Rohan Crite (American, 1910 - 2007)
Harriet Hosmer (American, 1830 - 1908)
Jean-Antoine Houdon (French, 1741 - 1828)
Gifford Reynolds Beal (1879 - 1956)
John Singer Sargent (1856 - 1925)
Bradley Phillips (1929 - 1991)
Polly (Ethel) Thayer (1904 - 2006)
Artist unknown
George Deem (1932 - 2008)
Robert Ball Hughes (1806 - 1868)
Thomas Lyon Mills
Thomas Doughty (American, 1793 - 1856)
John Gadsby Chapman (American, 1808 - 1889)
Cephas Thompson (American, 1775 - 1856)
Washington Allston (American, 1779 - 1843)
Chester Harding (American, 1792 - 1886)
Sarah Anne Freeman Clarke (American, 1808 - after 1888)
Enrico Meneghelli (Italian, 1853 - after 1910)
Artist unknown
John Quincy Adams Ward (American, 1830 - 1910)
Daniel Chester French (American, 1850 - 1931)