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Acquired Tastes: 200 Years of Collecting for the Boston Athenaeum

February 13 - July 13, 2007


(above: Horatio Greenough (1805-1852), Venus Victrix, 1837-1840, Marble, 145.3 x 41 x 47.6 cm. Gift of the estate of John Lowell, Jr., 1842)

As the major component of a celebration of its bicentennial year in 2007, the Boston Athenæum is presenting an exhibition that will trace the acquisition of its collections from its founding as a literary society and subscription library in 1807 to the present day. The exhibition will emphasize the great range of objects -- books, paintings, sculptures, engravings, maps, photographs, manuscripts, decorative arts, curios, and artifacts -- that have been collected by the Athenæum over two centuries in order to create a unique inspirational environment for study and intellectual exchange. (right: Mather Brown (1761-1831), John Adams, 1788, Oil on canvas, 90.2 x 71.3 cm. Bequest of George Francis Parkman, 1908)

A careful selection from the institution's historic holdings will make up the bulk of the exhibition. In the fine arts, this will include sculptures by Thomas Crawford, Horatio Greenough, and Jean-Antoine Houdon; paintings by Asher Brown Durand, John Singer Sargent, Florine Stettheimer, Gilbert Stuart, Thomas Sully, and Polly Thayer; prints by Winslow Homer, Fitz Henry Lane, and Paul Revere; and photographs by Matthew Brady, Abelardo Morell, and Eadweard Muybridge. Other treasures that were once part of the Athenæum's collections, including paintings by American artists Washington Allston, Albert Bierstadt, Rembrandt Peale, John Trumbull, and Benjamin West, are being generously lent to the exhibition by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, among others. In this way, the fascinating story of the Boston Athenæum, its history, and the growth of its collections, will be told in its entirety.

In a lavish catalogue accompanying the exhibition, the history of the Boston Athenæum and the story of its collections will be compared with those of other, similar organizations such as the Providence Athenæum, the Redwood Library and Athenæum, the Wadsworth Athenæum, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. This tale of taste will be placed within the larger contexts of the cultural history of the United States and the international movement known as the Enlightenment. Both the exhibition and its catalogue will trace shifts in collecting policies at the Athenæum as a reflection of aesthetic changes in this country in general. Constituting a struggle between literature and the fine arts -- with one or the other in ascendancy at various times throughout the Athenæum's history -- this particular theme will be a recurring one throughout the exhibition and will provide the visitor and reader with a fascinating subtext for which the objects will act as illustration. The catalogue will feature essays by the exhibition's curators, Stanley Cushing, Curator of Rare Books at the Boston Athenæum, and David Dearinger, the institution's Susan Morse Hilles Curator of Paintings and Sculpture.


(above: Polly (Thayer) Starr (1904-2006), Donald C. Starr, 1934, Oil on canvas, 127.6 x 89.5 cm. Gift of Polly Thayer Starr, 1995)

From its founding in 1807, the Boston Athenæum's primary mission has been to provide a suitable location for serious study, discussion, and debate of all topics of interest to the enquiring mind. In the Enlightenment of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries -- the historic period which saw the founding of the Boston Athenæum and many like organizations -- it was believed that intellectual endeavors more easily germinate and thrive in an atmosphere that is spacious, comfortable, quiet, and aesthetically pleasing. This atmosphere required a suitable structure, it was thought, where books and manuscripts could be preserved, logically organized, and made accessible, where there is enough space for people to work both in isolation and in groups, and where utilitarian objects could be logically grouped with didactic ones. Tables, chairs, and shelves provided the armature on and around which everything else was arranged: books, of course, but also objects of antiquarian, botanical, biological, anatomical, and anthropological interest. In this setting, too, fine examples of paintings, sculptures, drawings, and engravings fulfilled their traditional purposes of education and inspiration and-together with those from the world of science-stimulated imaginations, improved morals, and refined aesthetic tastes. This is exactly the sort of environment that was generated by the Athenæum's acquisition policies beginning in 1807 and that has been consciously maintained to the present day. (


(above Thomas Sully (1783 - 1872), Thomas Handasyd Perkins, 1831 - 1832, Oil on canvas, 287 x 195.6 cm. Athenæum purchase, 1832)

This still-evolving history of the Boston Athenæum will be told through the exhibition of almost two hundred objects. Among these will be rare books, manuscripts, maps, paintings, sculpture, works-on-paper, photographs, decorative arts, and ethnographic artifacts.

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