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Collecting for the Boston Athenæum in the 21st Century: Paintings and Sculpture

September 25, 2013 - February 15, 2014


Since the year 2000, the Boston Athenæum has added more than fifty paintings and sculptures to its collection of fine arts. Collecting for the Boston Athenæum in the 21st Century: Paintings and Sculpture, on view in the Athenæum's Norma Jean Calderwood Gallery from September 25, 2013, through February 15, 2014, features the highlights, including paintings by Cephas Thompson, William McGregor Paxton, William Morris Hunt, John Sloan, and Frank Duveneck and sculpture by Thomas Ball, Leonard Baskin, Bashka Paeff, Richard Henry Park, and Albert Wein . All have been acquired for the Athenæum by gift, bequest, or purchase since the turn of the twenty-first century. (right: William McGregor Paxton (1869-1941); Elizabeth Vaughan Okie (ca. 1895), Oil on canvas, 32 x 21 1/8 inches. Athenæum Bicentennial purchase, 2007 UR317)

Besides exploring recent directions in the Athenæum's collecting, the exhibition serves as an update and addendum to the paintings and sculpture section of the Athenæum's bicentennial exhibition, Acquired Tastes: 200 Years of Collecting for the Boston Athenæum. This 2007 traveling show surveyed the Athenæum's collecting during its entire first two centuries.

"At least twenty percent of the objects in the current exhibition have a connection to another object or group of objects already in the collection," says David B. Dearinger, Susan Morse Hilles Curator of Paintings & Sculpture. "Others fill historical or aesthetic gaps in the collection, especially for those periods in the history of American art, such as the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the Athenæum was doing little systematic collecting of art."

Among the works in Collecting for the Boston Athenæum is William McGregor Paxton's Impressionist-influenced Elizabeth Vaughan Okie (ca. 1895). Okie was a Boston artist who later became Paxton's wife. "This is the earliest known portrait of [Elizabeth Okie] by her husband," Dearinger says, "and may have been painted specifically for her, possibly as an engagement or wedding gift. Most of Paxton's early paintings were destroyed in a studio fire in the first decade of the twentieth century, making this a rare survivor of that part of his oeuvre."

Albert Wein's plaster maquette Libby Dam, 1973, is, as Dearinger notes, a study for the sculptor's "chef d'oeuvre, a monumental relief sculpture that he created in 1973 for the Treaty Tower of the New Libby Dam in Montana. The finished sculpture measures over thirty by twenty seven feet and was carved from Vermont granite." The work is a gift from the artist's estate.

Polly [Ethel] Thayer's engaging Shopping for Furs (ca. 1945) brings the total number of Thayer's paintings in the Athenæum's collection to seven. The work is "the first genre painting by Thayer to enter the collection and, therefore, adds depths to the institution's holdings. Undoubtedly posed by a carefully selected model, the figure is a brilliant study in the numbing exhaustion brought on by the mundane, ultimately meaningless activity of shopping for luxury items." Born in 1904, Thayer had a remarkably long artistic career in Boston and died in 2006, aged 101. This work was acquired in 2010.

Prominent Boston School painter William Morris Hunt's allegorical nude, Boy with a Butterfly (1870), illustrates Hunt's classical training in Dusseldorf and Paris and the influence of contemporary French painters such as Thomas Couture and Jean-François Millet. The painting was originally in the collection of Hunt's famous architect brother, Richard Morris Hunt, and remained in the family until its bequest to the Athenæum in 2004.

The Boston Athenæum began actively collecting and exhibiting art in 1827, one of the first American institutions to do so. It has continued to collect ever since, even after closing its public exhibition spaces in 1876. In July of that year, after several years of exhibiting at the Athenæum's galleries, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, opened its doors in its first permanent home in Copley Square. Thereafter, the Museum of Fine Arts took on the role of Boston's leading public art museum.

The Athenæum's art collection now constitutes over 100,000 works, including paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, photographs, and decorative arts. When the Athenæum's Norma Jean Gallery opened in 2002, the Athenaeum reinvigorated its program of public art exhibitions. Located on the first floor of the Boston Athenæum's National Historic Landmark building at 10 1/2 Beacon Street in the heart of Beacon Hill, Boston, Massachusetts, the Norman Jean Calderwood Gallery is the Athenæum's main public exhibition space.


(above: Polly [Ethel] Thayer (1904-2006), Shopping for Furs, n. d., Oil on canvas. Athenæum purchase, 2010 UR327)


Resource Library Editor's note:

Paula D. Matthews, Stanford Calderwood Director and Librarian, said in a September 2012 Boston Athenæum article: "Born Ethel Randolph Thayer in 1904 to a family of Boston lawyers, Thayer died, after a very long life and prolific career, more than a century later: in 2006. Her estate established the Polly Thayer Starr Charitable Trust to promote her legacy as a leading Boston artist. This summer, the Trust awarded a generous grant to the Boston Athenæum, the Gardner Museum, and the Museum of Fine Arts to establish the "Polly Thayer Starr Collaborative," which I will coordinate, and to present a lecture series here, a visiting artist series at the Gardner, and a scholarship at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts."

The Boston Athenæum website adds: "Since the year 2000, the Boston Athenæum has added, through gifts and purchases, over fifty paintings and sculptures to its collection of fine arts. This exhibition highlights some of the gems from that group and includes, from the nineteenth century, masterworks of portraiture by Cephas Thompson (1775-1856), Nathaniel Rogers (1788-1844), Francis Alexander (1800-1880), and William McGregor Paxton (1869-1941); rare early genre paintings by Christopher Pearce Cranch (1813-1892), William Holbrook Beard (1823-1900), and David Neal (1838-1915); a classic mid-nineteenth-century still-life by Frederick S. Batcheller (1836-1889); images of children by sculptors Thomas Ball (1819-1911), Richard Henry Park (1832-1902), and painter William Morris Hunt (1824-1879); and several Boston scenes by painters Enrico Meneghelli (1853-after 1912) and Frank Duveneck (1848-1919). The twentieth century is represented by paintings and sculptures by artists such as John Sloan (1871-1951), Bashka Paeff (1893-1879), Alexander Brook (1898-1980), Polly Thayer (1904-2006), Albert Wein (1915-1991), Leonard Baskin (1922-2000), and George Deem (1932-2008). As a special bonus, several important paintings that have been promised as future gifts to the Athenæum are included."


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