No finer arts around than at these college museums

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jaci Conry
Globe Correspondent / March 16, 2008

he symbiotic relationship between art and education has been recognized since the Renaissance. Back then part of becoming a gentleman was amassing a princely collection of objects representing all the world's knowledge and displaying them. The first university museum was the Ashmolean, built to house the donated collection of Elias Ashmol and completed in 1683 at the University of Oxford. By the 19th century US universities were following suit, establishing collections to stimulate interest in art and assist in teaching about it.

Today, New England colleges are home to some esteemed art museums. Collections span ancient times to the present day, representing the world's most celebrated artists from Greek and Roman sculptors, Asian printmakers, and Renaissance masters to Impressionist icons, early American painters, and contemporary innovators. The appeal of the exhibits extends far beyond campus limits, beckoning art lovers from all over, and in many cases, the buildings that house the collections are exceptional themselves. A few notables:

The nation's first university art museum, the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, is also among the most prestigious with a collection of more that 185,000 objects that dates from ancient times to the present day and represents civilizations worldwide. The gallery was founded in 1832 after John Trumbull, an American history painter and portraitist, donated 100 works to the school. He also designed a Neoclassical building for the display: The north gallery was devoted to his paintings, while the south gallery displayed works by other artists. Within 30 years, the museum's holdings had outgrown the Trumbull Gal lery and were housed in several locations around campus.

By the late 1920s, noted architect Egerton Swartwout designed a building to unite Yale's burgeoning collection. Inspired by Trecentro Italian architecture, Swartwout worked to ensure the building harmonized with the neo-Gothic style then favored throughout the campus. In time, the gallery's expanding collection and activities required even more space, and a second building, in a radically different style, was commissioned. Designed in 1953 by modernist pioneer Louis Kahn, the building, which stresses materials and surfaces - bold geometric forms, crisp lines, and sensitive use of light - was his first significant commission.

Kahn's masterpiece represented a departure for US museum architecture, and in its early years, visitors came as much to see the fascinating structure as the collections within. Made of brick, concrete, glass, and steel, the building's distinct features include a five-story glass wall and tetrahedral ceilings, fashioned of poured concrete and configured to form three-dimensional matrices of interlocking triangles.

In late 2006, the iconic modernist structure reopened after an extensive three-year, $44 million renovation to restore features of Kahn's original design that had become altered or in need of repair over the years. Indeed Kahn's elements have been restored in all of their glory. Of course, the true revelation occurs when you step into the galleries. Paintings range from early Italian Renaissance (the museum holds one of the world's finest collections) to modern pieces by Paul Cézanne, Andy Warhol, and Jackson Pollack, and are displayed on partitions supported by steel legs that divide the rooms into a series of small informal spaces. Works by Monet, Renoir, and Pissarro hang in ornate gilded frames along a concrete-block wall the length of the third floor.

The gallery also maintains a remarkable collection of American painting, sculpture, and decorative arts that surpasses that of most big city museums. The trove includes works by Edward Hopper and Winslow Homer and silver and furnishings from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. The museum contains an impressive array of ancient art, justly famous for its large group of objects excavated from the ancient Roman city of Dura-Europos, as well as a distinguished collection of Greek vases and ancient glass. Holdings include a growing grouping of Mesoamerican art: terra-cotta figurines from the Mayan period, figures and house models from western Mexico, and a rare clay model of an ancient ball game. Among other treasures is van Gogh's "The Night Café" and a significant collection of African art, noted for its group of ritual figures and masks from West and Central Africa.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and one of the most important edifices in the state of Maine, the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick was constructed in 1894 by the architectural firm McKim, Mead, and White. The building with its brick, limestone, and granite Beaux-Arts façade was based on Renaissance prototypes and is one of the few remaining structures in which the architectural and decorative ideals of the late 19th century are so fully realized. Elements include a grand stair leading to a dramatically shadowed loggia flanked by lion sculptures modeled on those at Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence, and a dramatic central rotunda capped by a high coffered dome surrounded by three sky-lit galleries. Upon entering, visitors take in four large semicircular murals below the rotunda dome by leading painters of the American Renaissance. Elihu Vedder, Kenyon Cox, Abbott Thayer, and John LaFarge each painted an allegorical representation of one of the four cities perceived at the time as most central to the development of Western art: Athens, Rome, Florence, and Venice.

In October 2007 the museum unveiled a big expansion and preservation project. The $20.8 million endeavor, for which the museum was closed for two years, involved an entire interior renovation, integration of the museum's traditional features with a new entry pavilion - a glass and bronze structure housing a glass elevator and "floating" steel staircase - and a new addition, featuring an extensive glass curtain wall behind which the museum displays the prize of its collection: six imposing Assyrian relief sculptures. Beautifully carved in gypsum and ranging in size, some as tall as 6 feet, the bas reliefs decorated the walls of King Ashurnasirpal's palace at Nimrud in in Assyria (what is now northern Iraq) in the 9th century BC. The palace fell into disrepair in the late 7th century BC, and the reliefs were covered with dirt for centuries, which enabled them to be remarkably well-preserved. They were excavated in the 1840s and donated to Bowdoin in 1860.

Though relatively small, Bowdoin's collection numbers around 15,000 objects, yet it has a broad reach, representing cultures of the ancient Mediterranean to the present. Among the treasures are more than 1,800 Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Byzantine objects; European Old Master drawings; and an American collection that features one of the most important groupings of Colonial and Federal portraits along with paintings by John Singleton Copley, John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt, and Andrew Wyeth. The museum also has an extensive archive of memorabilia: photographs, letters, newspaper clippings, paint brushes, and palates from Winslow Homer's studio donated by his family in the 1960s.

Smith College Museum of Art's $35 million renovation five years ago ensured that art was at every turn - even the restrooms, which are permanent installations that are part of the Northampton museum's collections. The women's room, created by artist Ellen Driscoll, is a serene immersion in an underwater world. Set into blue-tiled walls are glass panels finely etched with images of protozoa nets, waves, and works of art. The underwater imagery is echoed in the sinks and other fixtures. In contrast, the men's room, by artist Sandy Skoglund, uses a stark black and white palette. Burned onto each wall tile as well as in the room's fixtures, are bold black line drawings based on 10 myths from different cultures associated with water and its role in purification and the creation of the universe. The imagery ranges from tears to raindrops to underwater creatures. Other functional pieces of art include several commissioned wood, bronze, and glass benches in the galleries made by New England artists and furniture makers.

Besides 25,000 works of art, the museum houses the Hillyer Art Library, regarded as one of the best at a US undergraduate institution. Founded in 1879 as a contemporary American collection, the first painting purchased by the college was Thomas Eakins's "In Grandmother's Time," along with 27 other oils by living American artists. Today, American art, particularly from the 19th and 20th centuries, remains the museum's strength and is represented by Hudson River School landscapes, folk art, and paintings by Albert Bierstadt, James Abbot McNeill Whistler, and Sargent. Equally impressive are the extensive holdings of European art from the same period. The internationally recognized collection of French paintings, displayed in the natural-light-filled third-floor galleries where there are fine views of town and campus, includes works by Courbet, Degas, Monet, Gauguin, and Cézanne, along with artists who achieved acclaim later: Picasso, Gris, and Kirchner.

The museum also houses scrolls by Japanese and Chinese masters, Greek and Roman glassware, ceramics, and statuary. There are fine examples of many master printmakers, both Western and Eastern, including Rembrandt, Munch, and Matisse, dating from the 15th century to the present. Equally impressive are the museum's rich holdings in photography, where nearly 6,000 prints span the history of the medium. Nineteenth-century pioneers are represented, including William Henry Fox Talbot and Edward Muybridge, to contemporary photographers including Chris Enos and Robert Mapplethorpe.

Jaci Conry, a freelance writer and managing editor of South Shore Living magazine, can be reached at

If You Go

Yale University Art Gallery

1111 Chapel St., New Haven, Conn. 202-432-0600

Bowdoin College Museum of Art

9400 College Station

Brunswick, Maine 207-725-3275

Smith College Museum of Art

Brown Fine Arts Center

Elm Street (Route 9) Northampton, Mass. 413-585-2760

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