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Art Treasures, Gracefully Drawn:
James Bowdoin III and America's Earliest Drawing Collection

Introduction to the Online Catalogue

James Bowdoin III and America’s Earliest Drawing Collection is the first online scholarly catalogue at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, funded through a grant from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation. The scope of the project covers the group of one hundred and forty-one old master drawings donated by the College’s founder, James Bowdoin III, at his death in 1811. These drawings, primarily of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italian and Dutch works, some created by recognized artists and others copied after famous paintings and sculptures, comprise the earliest public collection of drawings in America. While many university museums and public galleries in Europe had been gifted drawings since their founding, the Bowdoin collection represents the first documented instance of old master works on paper (the term old master refers mostly to the eminent artists of the sixteenth through early eighteenth centuries) appearing in an American collection. Numerous probate inventories in colonial America and the Early Republic reveal the taste for prints, often copies of the old masters, but there are few instances of drawings listed. James Bowdoin III’s collection is therefore a unique and influential example for the Early Republic, representing its owner’s awareness of European models and also his personal preferences in terms of subject and typology.

Building on the research conducted for the 1985 catalogue, Old Master Drawings at Bowdoin College, written by David P. Becker, Bowdoin Class of 1970, the online catalogue includes new work conducted by Samuel H. Kress Research Fellow Sarah Cantor over the summer of 2015. The online catalogue consists of individual entries for each drawing divided into several sections. The entry texts or "commentaries," most based on the catalogue by Becker, have been updated to incorporate new research and attribution suggestions from scholars. Marks & Inscriptions lists the inscriptions, watermarks, and collectors’ marks, or stamps of previous owners. Provenance is the history of ownership. For the majority of the drawings in this group, the only previous documented owner is James Bowdoin III. Attributions, a category not often included in online collection catalogues, provides a detailed history of the connoisseurship of each drawing as documented in the Museum’s individual object files. Noted scholars from the early twentieth century to the present have suggested possible attributions for a number of the Bowdoin drawings. Exhibition History presents every venue, both within the Museum and outside, where the drawings have been shown to the public. Bibliography is the publication history of each drawing, much of which has now been updated since the publication of the 1985 catalogue.