Friday, March 6, 2015

The Makers of the American Wing

The opening of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1924 was the culmination of decades of work by a dedicated group of collectors, scholars, curators, philanthropists, and museum administrators. We’ve met some of them already as organizers of the Hudson-Fulton Exhibition of 1909, but let’s get to know our cast of characters a little better. 

Robert W. de Forest
 Robert W. de Forest (1848-1931) came from an elite New York family. His maternal grandfather was the president of the New York Stock Exchange and his father a prominent attorney. In 1872, he married Emily Johnston, the daughter of railroad president John Taylor Johnston. By the 1890s, de Forest had largely retired from his legal practice and commercial dealings to focus on philanthropy, and was deeply involved with the work of the Charity Organization Society and the Russell Sage Foundation.

De Forest also followed in the footsteps of his father-in-law, who had been the first president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, becoming a trustee in 1889, secretary of the board in 1905, and president in 1913—a position he would hold until his death in 1931. De Forest and his wife were themselves both collectors of American antiques, and it was largely due to his influence that the Metropolitan began to exhibit and collect American decorative arts. In 1922, Robert and Emily de Forest announced that they would donate the funds needed to build the new American Wing of the museum, ultimately contributing $272,000 to this endeavor—about $3.5 million in today’s dollars.

John Fox Slater Memorial Museum
When de Forest took up his position as secretary of the board of trustees in 1905, he hired Henry Watson Kent as his assistant. Although Kent came from a much more modest background than de Forest, the two men shared many of the same ideas about the importance of making art widely accessible to a broad audience. Kent (1866-1948) began his professional career at the Boston Public Library, and in 1888 was hired as the curator of the just-completed Slater Memorial Museum at Norwich Free Academy in Connecticut. In 1900 he left Norwich to become the librarian of the Grolier Club, a private society of bibliophiles, in New York. Kent’s work at these elite institutions allowed him to form connections with important figures (mostly men) in the world of business, art, and philanthropy. Kent and de Forest worked closely together to organize the Hudson-Fulton Exhibition, and in 1913, when de Forest became president of the Met, Kent stepped into his vacated position as secretary of the board. 

It seems to have been Henry Kent who first raised the idea, even before the Hudson-Fulton, that H. Eugene Bolles might be willing to sell his collection to the Metropolitan. The matter required some delicacy, and Kent approached Bolles’s cousin and fellow collector, George S. Palmer, to ask if he thought the collection might ever come on the market. Palmer replied that it was quite likely—Bolles and his wife had no children, and the collection was getting so large that it was beginning to feel like something of a burden. Palmer wrote to Kent, “He is inclined to look for a suitable place for its permanent keeping. As he cannot afford to furnish such a place himself and cannot afford to present his collection to a public institution, he is approaching the point where he will be willing to sell it to be kept together in some public place.”

H. Eugene Bolles
H. Eugene Bolles (1838-1910) began collecting in the 1880s, at a time when it was still considered unusual and even rather eccentric for a man to collect American antiques as a hobby. Bolles was a lawyer and lived in Boston, but he spent most of his spare time scouring the countryside for old furniture. He also worked with dealers and attended country auctions, and was known to be willing to go to great lengths and endure extreme discomfort to acquire the objects he sought. The Bolles home was crowded with furniture—an inventory taken at the time of the collection’s sale showed that in the parlor alone were “five Bible boxes, three chests, two court cupboards, a highboy, a lowboy, a desk, three tables of various sizes and shapes, four armchairs, a roundabout chair, three Chippendale chairs, eight mirrors, a Hepplewhite dressing case, a bodice with embroidered front, and smaller objects of pewter and other metals, wood, bone, and glass.”

It was clear to Robert de Forest and Henry Kent that the Bolles collection was ideally suited to become the nucleus of the Met’s American decorative arts collection. Actually acquiring the pieces was more difficult, since the museum had no designated funds to purchase American art. It was fortunate, then, that de Forest was the legal adviser to one of the wealthiest women in the United States, Margaret Olivia Sage, and that Mrs. Sage had long been a proponent of public service and philanthropy.

Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage
in 1910
Margaret Olivia Slocum (1828-1918) was born in Syracuse, New York, the only child of middle-class parents. Despite her family’s financial struggles, she was well educated, graduating from Emma Willard’s Troy Female Seminary. Margaret worked as a teacher and as a governess in Syracuse and in Philadelphia, and in 1869 she married financier (some might say robber baron) Russell Sage. When Sage died in 1906, Margaret inherited his entire fortune of $70 million, which she was free to use however she wished. Mrs. Sage chose to dedicate herself primarily to educational causes, donating funds to Syracuse University, Yale, Princeton, Cornell, Vassar, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She also founded Russell Sage College in her late husband’s hometown of Troy, New York. In 1907, she established the Russell Sage Foundation, which worked to address issues related to immigration, labor, city planning, health care, and other matters of social policy.

Mrs. Sage agreed to purchase the Bolles collection in the fall of 1909, as the Hudson-Fulton Exhibition was coming to an end. She then made a gift of the entire collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In one stroke, the Met had acquired a comprehensive collection of American antique furniture from the seventeenth through the early nineteenth century. Items from the Bolles collection were put on display almost immediately, but de Forest and Kent were dissatisfied with the way the pieces looked in the museum’s galleries, and the collection was so large—886 pieces in total—that most of the items had to be kept in storage or in study rooms. Clearly, a dedicated wing for American art, one with rooms of an appropriate scale, was necessary.

Part of the Bolles Collection as it was displayed prior to the construction
of the American Wing, ca. 1915

No comments:

Post a Comment