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

Directors' Foreword

It is with particular pleasure that we present Art Treasures, Gracefully Drawn, James Bowdoin III and America's Earliest Drawing Collection, the first online scholarly catalogue to be developed by the Bowdoin College Museum of Art (BCMA) and the first to be launched by an academic museum. The innovation marked by this scholarly product, which reflects the research and expertise of two scholars, Sarah Cantor and David P. Becker, class of 1970, (1947-2010), is appropriate for the collection it celebrates: the first public collection of drawings in the United States. Its appearance is made possible by two generous contributions to the Museum: a grant from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, which enabled the BCMA to bring scholar Sarah Cantor to the Museum during the summer of 2015, and a contribution from an anonymous donor that enabled the Museum to digitize at high resolution each of the drawings in the collection.

The one hundred and forty-one old master drawings addressed by this publication were assembled by the founder of Bowdoin College, James Bowdoin III, who named the institution in honor of his father, James Bowdoin II, the second governor of Massachusetts and co-founder of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. As Sarah Cantor demonstrates in her essay about the collection, James Bowdoin III shared his father’s commitment to developing for the new American nation a scholarly and cultural infrastructure, based in education that would enable the citizens of the pioneering democracy to shoulder its important responsibilities. Such a conviction was shared by his friend Thomas Jefferson, who, while president, appointed Bowdoin as Minister Plenipotentiary to Spain. As Jefferson would remark in 1786 to his former law professor George Wyeth, the most important thing the new government could provide was “for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom, and happiness.”1 For Bowdoin, the arts formed a critical component of one’s education as a citizen, and he would offer Jefferson, to whom he gave a marble reproduction of an ancient sculpture of Ariadne, then believed to be Cleopatra, his services while stationed abroad in procuring works of art for his nation.2

Bowdoin’s gift of one hundred forty-one drawings, sixty-eight paintings, and eleven prints to the institution he founded was pathbreaking, making Bowdoin College only the second educational institution in the country, after Dartmouth, to develop a collegiate collection.3 Housed within the institution’s library, the drawings received renewed attention in the late nineteenth century, as documented by Sarah Cantor in her catalogue essay, and were exhibited in the Walker Art Building, built to house the College’s art collections, and completed in 1894.4

While the drawings have long been celebrated by curators and art historians at Bowdoin and cherished by a small circle of experts, they have been less well known to a broad public. Certainly David P. Becker’s 1985 catalogue, Old Master Drawings at Bowdoin College (Bowdoin College Museum of Art, 1985), played a critical role in documenting these works. But their inclusion among the Museum’s drawing collection as a whole may have unintentionally obfuscated the significance of Bowdoin’s achievement in developing his collection in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and in donating it to the College. This publication thus seeks to give new visibility to James Bowdoin III’s drawing collection and to highlight the important role played by Bowdoin as a pioneering collector of the fine arts in the United States.

Appropriately, just as the education Bowdoin sought to advance at Bowdoin College demanded of its students exposure to multiple disciplines, so too this catalogue has been made possible by extraordinary collaboration across numerous areas of expertise. Our first thanks goes to Sarah Cantor, whose time at Bowdoin College during the summer of 2015 was made possible due to the generous support of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation. Her dedicated research has played a critical role in shedding new attention on Bowdoin’s drawings. Among other contributions, Cantor has found new evidence revealing the importance of these works for the patron who gathered them, such as the drawing mounts, likely created at Bowdoin’s direction, that originally housed them upon their arrival at Bowdoin College. Cantor’s research has helped to make possible two new attributions and to confirm a third reattribution made by Becker following the publication of his 1985 catalogue. In addition to her diligent research on individual drawings and her development of new entries and the revision of a group of entries previously developed by Becker, Cantor has also created a valuable overview of Bowdoin’s activities as a collector, shedding new light on the development of the collection and the erudition his choices reflect.

In creating her new scholarship, Cantor built on research previously conducted by David P. Becker, a member of Bowdoin’s Class of 1970, and published in his important catalogue, Old Master Drawings at Bowdoin College. Indeed, the importance of Becker’s foundation is such that the present project republishes his essay on the “History of the Collection,” providing an overview of how the collection formed by James Bowdoin III fits with others subsequently acquired by the Museum, in addition to including a number of his curatorial entries on the drawings.

Numerous scholarly advisors provided support and assistance in the research reflected here. For their assistance we offer our emphathic thanks to Laura Sprague Consulting Curator of Decorative Arts, Bowdoin College Museum of Art; Susan Wegner, Associate Professor of Art History and Director, Division of Art History, Bowdoin College; Richard Saunders, Director, Middlebury College Museum of Art; Jonathan Bober, Curator and Head of the Department of Old Master Prints, National Gallery of Art; and Laura Giles, Heather and Paul G. Haaga Jr., Class of 1970, Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Princeton University Art Museum. Cantor also consulted closely with Margaret Morgan Grasselli, Curator of Old Master Drawings at the National Gallery of Art, Washington. We thank as well Ellen G. Miles, Curator Emerita, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, for information provided about Gilbert Stuart, who saw parts of the collection bequeathed by Bowdoin (perhaps only the paintings) during a trip to Bowdoin College in the 1820s. We are also deeply appreciative of the encouragement for the development of this pioneering digital resource by Crystal J. Hall, Associate Professor, Digital Humanities, and Co-Director, Digital and Computational Studies Initiative, Bowdoin College.

Critical to this effort was our colleague David Francis, Senior Interactive Developer, Digital and Social Media, Bowdoin College. Francis worked tirelessly with Sarah Cantor to develop a format for this new catalogue, which delivers five categories of information for each drawing: Marks and Inscriptions, Provenance, Exhibition History, Bibliography, and Commentaries, which refers to detailed curatorial entries on the work. Perhaps most significant, and most impressive technologically, the technical infrastructure developed by Francis for Art Treasures creates a live “evergreen” catalogue that is continually refreshed by any modification to curatorial information entered into the Museum's collection management database, EmbARK.

Francis and Cantor also worked closely with the Museum’s Assistant to the Registrar, Michelle Henning, to develop a new cataloguing template to enable the automated entry of information on each drawing into the Museum’s collection management system, so that it could properly output for our electronic catalogue. Other critical players in the development of this new system were Jennifer Edwards, Curator of Visual Resources in the Department of Art, Division of Art History at Bowdoin, and two Museum registrars: Elizabeth Carpenter, the Museum’s acting registrar from August 2014 through August 2015, and Laura Latman, the Museum’s registrar, who returned from a professional leave of absence in August 2015. The new public interface for scholarly information about our collections, modeled by this catalogue, represents an impressive new informational structure which will transform the way that the Museum, and perhaps other academic institutions as well, can develop scholarly catalogues based on their own collections.

Key contributions to this product were also made by Suzanne K. Bergeron, the Museum’s Assistant Director for Communications, and Eric Anderson. Together Bergeron and Anderson tirelessly reviewed and edited every entry included in this catalogue as well as the essays that accompany it. Data entry of each scholarly discussion of the works featured here was made possible by Jennifer Edwards, Curator of Visual Resources, Department of Art, Division of Art History, Bowdoin College, who did the HTML markup for all scholarly writing included here.  Important roles were played by Ellen Tani, Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow, BCMA, and Honor Wilkinson, Curatorial Assistant, BCMA, each of whom advised in important ways about the design of the catalogue. We thank as well Mitchell Davis, Chief Information Officer at Bowdoin College, for his encouragement and support of collaborative work between the Museum and the Department of Information Technology.

Further support for this undertaking has been provided by Rebekah Beaulieu, Assistant Director for Operations, BCMA; Margaret Broaddus and Heidi Peterson, Senior Leadership Gifts Officers, Bowdoin College; and Grace Garland, Director of Corporate and Foundation Relations, Bowdoin College. We also thank former Dean of Academic Affairs, Cristle Collins Judd and current Dean for Academic Affairs, Jennifer Scanlon for the support they have shown this project. As always we extend our thanks to the President of Bowdoin College, Clayton Rose, to the Museum’s Advisory Council, and to each member of the Museum’s staff.

As indicated above, this project would not be possible without the generous support of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, a grant from which supported Sarah Cantor’s work on this project; and an anonymous donor who graciously supplied funds for the digitization of the one hundred forty-one works featured here. It is our hope that scholars and students will benefit from this work and that their future contributions will enrich further this resource, the significance of which will only continue to grow.

Anne Collins Goodyear
Co-Director, Bowdoin College Museum of Art

  1. Letter from Thomas Jefferson to George Wythe, August 13, 1786, from Paris; Papers of Thomas Jefferson (Princeton: Princeton University, 2015, 10:243-5.
  2. Richard H. Saunders III, “James Bowdoin III (1752-1811),” in The Legacy of James Bowdoin III, edited by Katharine J. Watson (Brunswick: Bowdoin College Museum of Art, 1994), 17-18.
  3. Clifton C. Olds, “The Intellectual Foundations of the College Museum,” in The Legacy of James Bowdoin III, 33.
  4. On the first building erected to house Bowdoin College’s art collections see Lillian B. Miller, “The Legacy: The Walker Gift, 1894,” in The Legacy of James Bowdoin III, 187-212.