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Charles Loring Elliott, Portrait of Matthew Vassar, 1861


Drawings at Vassar to "Illustrate the Loftiest Principles and Refine the Most Delighted Hearts"

By Patricia Phagan, Philip and Lynn Straus Curator of Prints and Drawings

Originally Published in Master Drawings, Vol. 42, No. 2 (Summer 2004). Reproduced by permission of Master Drawings Association.

In 1864, English-born Matthew Vassar, founder of Vassar College, gave to his recently chartered school in Poughkeepsie, New York, a sizable collection of paintings, drawings, prints, albums of works on paper, and photographs.1 This group now forms the core of the permanent art collection at Vassar. The 3,789 objects were then housed in the first building on campus, the imposing Main Building, designed by James Renwick, Jr., architect of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and many other notable American institutional buildings. The art collection was intended as an essential resource in the education of the young women at the college, which opened the following year in 1865. Vassar students were to be afforded the opportunity to study original works of “artistic elegance, which shall at once illustrate the loftiest principles and refine the most delighted hearts.”2 The paintings, today the best-known portion of the original collection, were by Hudson River School artists. Many of their pictures were commissioned by the original owner of the entire collection, the Reverend Elias Lyman Magoon, a trustee of the college and chairman of the committee charged with establishing the new school’s art gallery.3

The four-story Main Building contained a spacious, elegant, dome-lit gallery on the top floor where, according to the 1867 account by Magoon’s fellow committee member Benson Lossing as well as contemporary renditions in oil and wood engraving, the paintings and a larger number of framed watercolors and graphite drawings were displayed salon-style (that is, stacked one above another and hung around the room). These works were copied and enjoyed by students under the supervision of the first professor of painting and drawing, Henry Van Ingen.4 By 1875, the gallery, along with the art studio, was moved to what is now The Center for Drama and Film; in 1915, the gallery made its home in the new Taylor Hall, along with the history of art and studio classes; and, in 1993, the collection moved to its present quarters in the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center. Today there are approximately 4,200 drawings and watercolors in the collection, a prominent component of the more than 15,000 objects housed at the museum.

According to Lossing’s description of the original gallery, there were a great number of watercolors and drawings on view.5 An idea of which works the young ladies actually saw on the walls may be gleaned from the 1864 inventory of the collection.6 In this original catalogue, English architectural drawings and watercolors of English cathedrals and university buildings, especially in Oxford and Cambridge, by Augustus Pugin, William Westall, and Frederick Mackenzie were plentiful, along with other picturesque works by Samuel Prout, David Roberts, John Sell Cotman, Thomas Sandby, Copley Fielding, and other British artists. In addition, there were a few American landscape drawings by such Hudson River School artists as Homer Martin and William Hart.

The section in the catalogue on “pictures in water-colors and pencil drawings” gives little information about the individual works, but the concentration on architectural views, with a lesser emphasis on landscape and genre, is telling. In sum, Elias Lyman Magoon’s principal goal as a collector was to acquire beautiful images of Christian architecture; as he stated to Matthew Vassar in a letter of 30 May 1864, his collection was devoted to “Christianity [as] Illustrated by its Monuments.”7 A Baptist minister, orator, and writer, Magoon built his collection from 1854 to 1860, purchasing numerous works from British publisher John Britton. (Britton commissioned many of the drawings in conjunction with engravings made for his antiquarian publications on English architecture and historical sites.) Among Magoon’s advisors were the British artist John Henry Le Keux and the writer and critic John Ruskin. He also bought directly from artists, including James Buckley.

Like many Americans of the mid-nineteenth-century, Magoon admired Ruskin, and he associated beauty with moral “truth” and godliness. He sought out these qualities in works of art, especially in the translucent medium of watercolor. In 1854, when Magoon began collecting, contemporary English watercolors were little known in America and the few examples that did cross the Atlantic were considered more as records of existing architecture than as fine art.8

Figure 1: JOSEPH MALLORD WILLIAM TURNER. Bacharach on the Rhine. Poughkeepsie, Vassar College, Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Gift of Matthew Vassar.

The 1864 catalogue included J. M. W. Turner’s intimate and atmospheric Bacharach on the Rhine, one of four watercolors by the English painter bought from Ruskin (Fig. 1).9 Ruskin had purchased the watercolor, showing golden-hued Gothic architecture and a limpid, blue sky, for 50 guineas, and noted that it was a “good specimen of Turners [sic] Vignettes,” in a letter to Magoon of 14 May 1856.10 Edward Francis Finden made an engraving after this small watercolor for inclusion in volume eight of The Works of Lord Byron: With His Letters and Journals, and His Life, by Thomas Moore, published in 1832.11

Figure 2: JOHN RUSKIN. Church of the Annunciation at Vico Equense on the Bay of Naples. Poughkeepsie, Vassar College, Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Gift of Matthew Vassar.

Another work from this core collection – Ruskin’s sensitively rendered, dramatic sketch in graphite, ink wash, watercolor, and gouache, now called Church of the Annunciation at Vico Equense on the Bay of Naples (Fig. 2)12 – was purchased in 1854 from a one-time Ruskin assistant then employed by the London firm Smith, Elder, and Co., publisher of Ruskin’s Stones of Venice, who had worked with him on his Italian “researches.” The following year, Ruskin was angered to learn from the new American weekly art periodical, The Crayon, that a sketch of his depicting a convent had been exhibited without his knowledge at the National Academy of Design, under the title, A Study Near Naples. The drawing in the exhibition belonged to Magoon.13 An anonymous correspondent wrote in the 2 May 1855 issue of The Crayon that Ruskin’s drawing was a “disappointment…some half-feeble, half-skillful drawing in the [depiction of the] convent.” In his view, the work lacked polish, was “far below mediocrity,” and was moreover incompatible with Ruskin’s published ideas on the accurate delineation of nature.14

Thus ensued letters supporting Ruskin from the editors, from Asher B. Durand (who had accepted the drawing for the exhibition), and from Magoon.15

Magoon, in his letter to the editors in the 9 May 1855 issue of The Crayon, emphasized the circumstances surrounding the purchase of the work, its spontaneity, its value as a “fragile memento of a great, good, and enduring man,” and the fact that Ruskin had not intended it for exhibition.16 Magoon began a friendly correspondence with Ruskin that resulted in the former’s eventual acquisition of Bacharach on the Rhine and three other watercolors by Turner.

The 1864 catalogue of the original collection did not itemize the more than two thousand watercolors and pencil drawings pasted into albums that were given to the college, along with approximately one thousand books and journals on antiquities, architecture, literature, history, art, and other subjects listed by title. In all, with the itemized works as well as the sheets pasted into albums, Matthew Vassar gave to the college that year a total of 2,274 drawings, the great majority of them from the English Gothic Revival period and all from Magoon’s collection. Vassar paid Magoon twenty thousand dollars for his whole collection of paintings, drawings, albums, and the remaining objects, which included arms and armor, coins, antiquities, and the art library.17

Figure 3: WILLIAM TROST RICHARDS. Legendary England, Tintagel. Poughkeepsie, Vassar College, Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Gift of Elias Lyman Magoon.

No further gifts of drawings came to Vassar College until 1883, when Magoon himself presented seven highly finished watercolors painted the year before, by his friend the American artist William Trost Richards. This series represented the theme of “The Cycle of Universal Culture Illustrated by the Graphic History of English Art.”18 Commissioned by Magoon, these “water color drawings,” as Richards described them in a letter to his daughter on 2 January 1883, ranged from pleasing depictions of ancient Stonehenge to legendary Tintagel Head in Cornwall (Fig. 3)19 to the commercial harbor of London. Magoon continued his generosity toward the college to the end of his life. Included in his bequest to Vassar following his death in 1884 were two drawings by English satirist Thomas Rowlandson, supplementing two that Matthew Vassar had purchased from him in the 1860s.

Figure 4: GIOVANNI BATTISTA TIEPOLO. Chronos Devouring his Child. Poughkeepsie, Vassar College, Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center.

In the 1880s and 1890s, there were a few sporadic accessions of drawings by Hudson River School painters. In 1916, when Oliver S. Tonks, head of the art department, was expanding the art curriculum, more drawings were acquired, including a watercolor by Henry Van Ingen, the first professor of art at Vassar, who had died in 1898.20 It was not until the 1930s, however, that significant numbers of drawings entered the collection again. The first drawing by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo in the collection, Chronos Devouring his Child (Fig. 4), was purchased in 1934 from A. Everett “Chick” Austin, Jr., director of the Wadsworth Athenaeum at Hartford and a fellow Harvard graduate student with Professor of Art Agnes Rindge; Austin evidently bought the sheet from the Savile Gallery in London.21 The brown ink and wash drawing with traces of black chalk is a variation of a work in The Metropolitan Museum of Art and is related to a drawing in The Pierpont Morgan Library that is very close in concept to a portion of the ceiling of the Palazzo Clerici in Milan.22 Other gifts of drawings came in the 1930s, mostly contemporary American art, as well as nineteenth-century sketchbooks by Sanford Robinson Gifford, which complemented the four paintings by this Hudson River School painter that were already in the Magoon collection.

With the purchase of the Tiepolo, the first recorded eighteenth-century Italian drawing to enter Vassar’s holdings, a new area of collecting began. The impetus for its acquisition may have been the addition to the curriculum in the 1930s of Art 350, “Studies in Italian Baroque Art,” which at Vassar covered the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Created and taught by Professor Rindge, the course was part of a new wave of interest in the art of that era, spurred by the art faculty at Harvard (Rindge received her Ph.D. from Harvard’s sister college, Radcliffe, in 1928).23

Figure 5: GIOVANNI FRANCESCO BARBIERI (IL GUERCINO). The Presentation at the Temple. Poughkeepsie, Vassar College, Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center.

With the art curriculum and faculty expanding, another important purchase of an old master Italian drawing occurred in 1941. This was the brown ink and wash sketch by Guercino, The Presentation at the Temple (Fig. 5),24 from the Schaeffer Galleries in New York; the sale was negotiated in part by Richard Krautheimer, professor of art, who had emigrated from Germany to the United States, settling at Vassar in 1937. The work, with its energetic play of billowing lines and transparent tones, was identified by Denis Mahon as a study for the 1627 fresco in the dome of Piacenza Cathedral.25 Mahon recounted in a letter of 3 May 1950 to Krautheimer how, in order to study the fresco, he had had “to scramble along a narrow and precarious Romanesque arcade without a balustrade; actually after I had been up a couple of times, the ecclesiastical authorities vetoed all further access as being too dangerous!”26

Figure 6: WILLEM DE KOONING. Untitled Study (Women). Poughkeepsie, Vassar College, Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Gift of Mrs. Richard Deutsch (Katherine W. Sanford, class of 1940).

During the decade of the 1930s, the courses in modern art at Vassar became more advanced, prompting the acquisition of contemporary drawings. Believing strongly that students should experience original works of art, the energetic and charismatic Professor Rindge sought to acquire for the collection drawings from all periods, but especially modern ones; she was aided in this by her strong ties to artists and art galleries in New York.

Figure 7: THOMAS ROWLANDSON. A Link Boy. Poughkeepsie, Vassar College, Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Francis Fitz Randolph (Mary E. Hill, class of 1945–4).

During her long reign at Vassar as director of the Art Gallery (1943 to 1962) and chair of the art department (1943 to 1965), Rindge added drawings by Vincent van Gogh, Paul Klee, Lyonel Feininger, and Stuart Davis, among other modern artists.27 (Rindge married in 1945, thus becoming Agnes Rindge Claflin.) The 1950s were a particularly fertile period. For instance, in 1950, the New York art collector and music critic Paul Rosenfeld gave six watercolors to Vassar, including works by Oscar Bluemner and John Marin. In 1953, Mrs. Richard Deutsch (Katherine W. Sanford, class of 1940), donated two important drawings by Willem de Kooning, including Untitled Study (Women) (Fig. 6),28 of about 1948, along with other modern European and American works. As she noted in her correspondence, the De Koonings were purchased from the artist at his studio when she and art critic Thomas B. Hess paid him a visit.

Figure 8: STUART DAVIS. Flora’s Slip. Poughkeepsie, Vassar College, Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center.

Gifts of works in long-established areas of collecting for the gallery continued as well; for instance, in 1953, Mr. and Mrs. Francis Fitz Randolph (Mary E. Hill, class of 1945–4) gave twenty-two drawings by Rowlandson (Fig. 7), which further enriched the gallery’s holdings of the artist’s work.29 Stuart Davis’s gouache Flora’s Slip of 1933–35 was purchased in 1954 (Fig. 8).30 Alumnae expressed appreciation of their exposure to such treasures by giving drawings of their own to the gallery, a tradition that continues today.

Figure 9: DOMENICO BECCAFUMI. The Farnese Ciborium and other Studies. Poughkeepsie, Vassar College, Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, The Mary (Elizabeth) Weitzel Gibbons, Class of 1951, Fund.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the acquisition of drawings steadily increased, the choices most often reflecting the art curriculum. In 1965, the year Professor Claflin retired from the art department, The Mary (Elizabeth) Weitzel Gibbons (class of 1951) Fund was established for the support of the purchase of drawings, especially examples by the old masters. One of these was the sketchbook page in brown ink and wash, the recto known as The Farnese Ciborium and Other Studies, by the sixteenth-century Sienese mannerist, Domenico Beccafumi (Fig. 9).31 It was purchased in 1967 from Thos. Agnew and Sons in London by the new director of the Art Gallery, Thomas J. McCormick. Indeed, the connoisseurship of drawings became the subject of a course at Vassar, Art 345, taught by collector and visiting scholar Curtis O. Baer from 1963 until his death in 1976. Students studied drawings in the collection as well as works on loan.

Figure 10: REGINALD MARSH. Prometheus in Rockefeller Center. Poughkeepsie, Vassar College, Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Gift of Florence Clothier Wislocki, class of 1926.

In 1975, Florence Clothier Wislocki, class of 1926, presented the large, animated ink, wash, and watercolor drawing by Reginald Marsh, Prometheus in Rockefeller Center of 1940 (Fig. 10).32 Indeed, over the next twenty-five years, early twentieth-century American art, which had been collected earlier, again became an area of interest. Important gifts of drawings included social realist and American Scene works by such artists as Marion Greenwood, James Daugherty, and Milton Bellin. Beginning in 1993, drawings of the period, especially those associated with the nearby art colony of Woodstock, were given by Susan and Steven R. Hirsch, class of 1971.

Figure 11: WILFREDO LAM. Untitled (from the Fata Morgana series). Poughkeepsie, Vassar College, Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Barbara Doyle Duncan, Class of 1943, Fund for Contemporary Latin American Drawings.

In 1976, with the Art Gallery under the new directorship of Peter Morrin, the establishment of the Barbara Doyle Duncan (class of 1943) Fund for Contemporary Latin American Drawings allowed for a new collecting area. Works by Rafael Ferrer, Marisol, and Joaquin Torres-Garcia, for example, entered Vassar’s collection. Wifredo Lam’s untitled pencil and ink drawing (Fig. 11) was executed in 1941 as part of the series of illustrations he made for Fata Morgana by André Breton, published the following year.33 Other areas of collecting, however, were not neglected. For example, in 1979, numerous composite sketches and elevation studies by contemporary architect Michael Graves were acquired, and, in 1980, a series of axonometric drawings executed in collage and pen by architect Peter Eisenman were also added. Such works ensured that students would have access to a wider range of architectural drawing styles and methods, and complemented the nineteenth-century English architectural drawings collected by Magoon. Years later, in 1994, drawings of Vassar’s Main Building by Renwick and drawings by the initial architect for the project, Thomas Tefft, were transferred to the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center from the Vassar College Library.

Figure 12: ANTONIO ZANCHI. Moses Striking the Rock. Poughkeepsie, Vassar College, Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Friends of the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center Fund.

Gifts and purchases of old master drawings have continued at Vassar, under the director of the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center since 1991, James Mundy (class of 1974), whose specialty is sixteenth-century Italian drawings. Judicious purchases of old master drawings, especially Italian, have strengthened and broadened an area of collecting first established with the purchase in 1934 of Tiepolo’s Chronos Devouring His Child. Recent purchases in this area include, for example, a masterful, delicate black chalk drawing by Francesco Vanni, Kneeling Figure and a Hand Holding a Bowl, acquired in 1995, and an energetic ink, wash, and chalk drawing by Antonio Zanchi, Moses Striking the Rock, which was added in 2000 (Fig. 12).34

Sketchbooks by nineteenth-century American landscape artists remain a strength of Vassar’s collection. The gift in 1987 of three sketchbooks with views executed in Sicily, Europe, and Africa from 1870 to 1878 by the sisters Ella Ferris Pell and Evie A. Todd exemplify the college’s tradition of acquiring art by women. Finally, the donation in 1996 of three sketchbooks of topographical scenes done in New York and abroad by Hudson River School artist Jervis McEntee ensured that the long-time practice of collecting nineteenth-century landscape drawings would continue at Vassar College, in the footsteps of Elias Lyman Magoon, the original source for its distinguished collection of drawings.

Patricia Phagan is The Philip and Lynn Straus Curator of Prints and Drawings at The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College.

  1. On the early years of the Art Gallery, see the early history of Vassar College by B. J. Lossing, Vassar College and Its Founder, New York, 1867, esp. 131–41.
  2. Report of the Committee on the Art Gallery of Vassar Female College, Poughkeepsie, New York, 1864, reprinted in Vassar College Art Gallery. Selections from the Permanent Collection, Vassar College Art Gallery, Poughkeepsie, 1967, p. xii.
  3. On those paintings by Hudson River School artists sold by Magoon to Matthew Vassar, see E. M. Foshay and S. Mills, All Seasons and Every Light. Nineteenth-Century American Landscapes from the Collection of Elias Lyman Magoon, exh. cat., Vassar College Art Gallery, Poughkeepsie, 1983. A Spanish version of the catalogue––Una luz en todo tiempo. Paisajes estadounidenses del siglo XIX de la colección de la Escuela superior Vassar––was printed in conjunction with a United States Information Agency tour of the exhibition to Caracas, Buenos Aires, Bogotá, and Mexico City.
  4. Lossing, 1867, pp. 131–33.
  5. Lossing, 1867, p. 133.
  6. A Catalogue of the Art Collection Presented by Matthew Vassar (The Founder) to Vassar College, June 28, 1864, New York, 1869.
  7. Elias Lyman Magoon to Matthew Vassar, 30 May 1864. Vassar College Library, Special Collections, Magoon Papers. Cited in Foshay and Mills, 1983, p. 27, n. 9.
  8. F. Consagra, “The ‘Ever Growing Elm’: The Formation of Elias Lyman Magoon’s Collection of British Drawings 1854–1860,” Landscapes of Retrospection: The Magoon Collection of British Drawings and Prints, 1739–1860, exh. cat., Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Poughkeepsie, 1999, pp. 95–96.
  9. Inv. no. 1864.1.217. Watercolor; 229 × 254 mm. See A. Wilton, J. M. W. Turner: His Art and Life, Secaucus, 1979, no. 1222; the three other watercolors are nos. 1140, 1156, and 1226.
  10. Letter from Ruskin to Magoon, 14 May 1856. Published in J. T. Fotheringham, “Some Ruskin Letters Hitherto Unpublished,” Vassar Journal of Undergraduate Studies, 1, 1926, p. 234.
  11. The Works of Lord Byron: With His Letters and Journals, and His Life, by Thomas Moore, Esq., 17 vols., London, 1832–33.
  12. Inv. no. 1864.1.206. Watercolor, graphite, ink, ink wash, and gouache; 397 × 286 mm.
  13. Magoon explained how it was acquired in a letter that he signed “E.L.M.” in “Sketchings,” in The Crayon, 1, 9 May 1855, p. 298. See Fotheringham, 1926, p. 232; National Academy of Design Exhibition Record, 1826–1860, vol. 2, New York, 1943, p. 107. The Ruskin drawing is given as no. 261 in the 1855 exhibition.
  14. “Sketchings,” in The Crayon, 1, 2 May 1855, pp. 282–83.
  15. See the small paragraph signed by “Eds. Crayon,” in “Sketchings,” in The Crayon, 1, 2 May 1855, p. 283; and letter from A.B. Durand, to Messrs. Editors, in “Sketchings,” in The Crayon, 1, 9 May 1855, p. 298. The letter from Magoon is cited in note 13 above.
  16. The letter from Magoon is cited in note 13 above.
  17. Consagra, 1999, p. 124.
  18. See Sally Mills’s entry on Richards in Foshay and Mills, 1983, pp. 81–82.
  19. Inv. no. 1883.2.2. Watercolor; 229 × 381 mm.
  20. See P. Askew, “The Department of Art at Vassar: 1865–1931,” in The Early Years of Art History in the United States, C. Hugh Smyth and P. M. Lukehart eds., Princeton, 1993, p. 62.
  21. Inv. no. 1934.3. Sepia ink and wash, over traces of black chalk; 203.2 × 279 mm. Letter from Mildred Steinbach to Robert Harshe, Art Institute of Chicago, 25 October 1937. Vassar College, Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, curatorial files.
  22. J. Bean and F. Stampfle, The Eighteenth Century in Italy, exh. cat., Metropolitan Museum of Art and Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, 1971, no. 93 (Time Seated Clutching a Putto; Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, inv. no. 37.165.7), and no. 91 (Time and Cupid, Pierpont Morgan Library, inv. no. IV, 125).
  23. P. Askew, “A Galaxy of Stars,” in Refining the Imagination. Tradition, Collecting, and the Vassar Education, exh. cat., Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Poughkeepsie, 1999, esp. pp. 18–20.
  24. Inv. no. 1941.4. Pen and brown ink, ink wash; 265 × 386 mm.
  25. D. Mahon, Studies in Seicento Art and Theory, London, 1947, pp. 29–30; D. M. Stone, Guercino. Master Draftsman. Works from North American Collections, exh. cat., Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, 1991, pp. 45–51, no. 21. The drawing is also known in the literature as The Circumcision.
  26. Letter from Denis Mahon, London, to Richard Krautheimer, Vassar College, 3 May 1950. Vassar College, Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, curatorial files.
  27. For Agnes Rindge’s tenure at Vassar, see An Exhibition in Memory of Agnes Rindge Claflin, exh. cat., Vassar College Art Gallery, Poughkeepsie, 1978.
  28. Inv. no. 1953.2.6. Oil, crayon, graphite, and pastel; 533 × 813 mm. See the letter from Katherine Sanford Deutsch to Sandra S. Phillips. Vassar College, Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, curatorial files.
  29. Inv. no. 1953.7.2. Pen and ink, ink wash, watercolor; 178 × 152 mm.
  30. Inv. no. 54.12. Gouache on board; 305 × 406 mm.
  31. Inv. no. 1967.2.2. Pen and brown ink, brown wash; 203 × 127 mm. Old Master Drawings, exh. cat., Thos. Agnew and Sons, Ltd., London, 1967, no. 8; see also Domenico Beccafumi, 1486–1551. Drawings from a Sketch Book, exh. cat., Thos. Agnew and Sons, Ltd., London, 1965, no. 22. The verso shows Two Studies of Arms.
  32. Inv. no. 1975.25. Brush and black ink, ink wash, watercolor, graphite; 686 × 1,035 mm.
  33. Inv. no. 1976.75. Graphite and ink. 219 × 168 mm. A. Breton, Fata Morgana, illustrated by Wifredo Lam, Buenos Aires, 1942.
  34. Inv. no. 2000.5. Pen and brown ink, brown wash, over black chalk; 556 × 381 mm.

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The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center

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