The history of Princeton University and of the collecting of art for Princeton are deeply interwoven. The origins of Princeton’s art collections date nearly to the University’s foundation, thus making Princeton one of the oldest collecting institutions in America. Chartered in 1746 as the College of New Jersey, the school moved into Nassau Hall a decade later following a period of brief residencies in nearby Elizabeth and Newark. But even before settling into its impressive new stone home—now the oldest continually used academic building in the nation—it received from its patron, New Jersey Colonial Governor Jonathan Belcher, the gift of “my own Picture at full length in a gilt Frame.” The College’s grateful trustees duly installed Belcher’s portrait in the building’s central prayer hall, where it was soon joined by a portrait of England’s King George II. In turn, this nascent portrait collection was augmented by objects of natural history and ancient architectural fragments to form a kind of “museum” of the Enlightenment, in keeping with the century’s fascination with organizing knowledge. Although both paintings were destroyed in 1777 during the Battle of Princeton that raged outside the College’s walls, and further works in the College’s early collection were destroyed in a disastrous fire in 1802, these initial efforts set the tone for the institution’s collecting over the next century and suggest an early commitment to teaching from original objects and using them as tools for accessing and understanding the wider world.
Such a collection would not, however, have comprised an art museum as we understand the term. That transformation was to come nearly a century later when the Scottish educator James McCosh arrived in Princeton in 1868 as its new president to modernize the College. This meant the importation of a number of new, progressive disciplines from Europe, including the history of art. By 1882, McCosh charged William Cowper Prime, Class of 1843, and General George McClellan (the former Civil War general and governor of New Jersey) with preparing a curriculum in the history of art. Prime, a New York journalist and founding trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, worked with McClellan to envision a curriculum that would offer direct access to works of art in a museum. They argued, “The foundation of any system of education in Historic Art must obviously be in object study. A museum of art objects is so necessary to the system that without it we are of [the] opinion it would be of small utility to introduce the proposed department.” From the beginning, its reach was to be interdisciplinary, moving well beyond the fields of art and Classics to include “many other branches of the collegiate course.” “Expectations of large future growth,” for which Princeton could “look with confidence to her sons, in all parts of the world,” were to be anticipated.
The Museum and what is now the Department of Art and Archaeology—the second oldest in the nation—formally came into being in 1882, founded on a philosophy that positioned Princeton at the cutting edge of scholarship in an era when the history of art was a new academic discipline, largely confined to the more advanced universities of Europe. Prime gave impetus to the establishment of a museum with the promise of his collection of pottery and porcelain upon the completion of a fireproof building to house it. From the beginning, the Museum was meant to serve a dual purpose: to provide exposure to original works of art and to teach the history of art through an encyclopedic collection of world art.
Allan Marquand, Class of 1874, had been teaching Latin and logic at Princeton and was made a lecturer in the new department of art and archaeology—a choice no doubt informed by the fact that Marquand’s father, Henry G. Marquand, was a collector and one of the founders of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. College trustees began soliciting funds for the fireproof building they had by then promised Prime, and by 1886–87, Marquand’s notebook listed a dozen names of donors whose combined gifts amounted to just over $40,000. This wasn’t enough to build the architect A. Page Brown’s entire plan, which included a central section, two projecting wings, and a lecture hall in the back, but it was sufficient to construct the central core in a Romanesque Revival style. By 1890, the three-story building with eighteen-inch brick walls on a stone foundation measuring some seventy-five by twenty-five feet was complete, at a final cost of $49,061. The building—known as the Museum of Historic Art—nevertheless miraculously accommodated (for many years) the museum, the department, the fine arts library, and the newly created School of Architecture. In 1890 the Trumbull-Prime Collection, which also bore Prime's wife's name, was delivered to Brown’s building, and the first phase of the Museum’s formal development was concluded.
From the beginning, museum, teaching, and library operated as three interwoven strands. Marquand had been named professor in 1883, and was quickly also named director of the Museum, a position he held until his retirement in 1922. The first pages of Marquand’s notebook contained not only lists of gifts, and promised gifts, of works of art but also of subscriptions to journals and purchases of photographs and slides for teaching. Early purchases included a large selection of Cypriot pottery from the Metropolitan Museum’s collection in 1890; Etruscan, Roman, and South Italian pottery; and objects from later periods. To provide more direction to the collection’s haphazard development, Marquand began an endowment (evidently from his own significant financial resources) that was then significantly enhanced by a gift from Edward Harkness; these gifts gave birth to a set of acquisitions resources that have become one of the Museum’s most distinguishing features.
Paintings slowly made their way into the Museum’s collections, especially after Frank Jewett Mather Jr. joined the faculty in 1910 to teach Renaissance art and then became director of the Museum in 1922. The institution Mather inherited had been a highly improvised place, and in his own words he “found [himself] presiding over the oddest kingdom of shreds and patches imaginable.” The same year, McCormick Hall, an addition in Venetian Gothic style after the plans of Ralph Adams Cram, was added to the west side of the A. Page Brown building. The first of many extensions to the Museum, McCormick Hall was a welcome gift from the family of Cyrus H. McCormick, Class of 1879, and Fowler McCormick Sr., Class of 1895, and contained space for teaching art history. The McCormick gift and the new Cram building allowed the original Museum building to be converted solely to Museum functions, and led to the creation of a “hall of casts” on the ground floor.
A former art critic for The Burlington Magazine, The New York Evening Post, and The Nation, Frank Mather collected in the fields of medieval and Renaissance art but also propelled the Museum into significant holdings of prints and drawings, particularly through the collection bequeathed to the Museum in 1933 by Junius Morgan, Class of 1888—a collection numbering several thousand objects and requiring the financial assistance of the Carnegie Corporation in their cataloguing. Following in Marquand’s footsteps, Mather was also himself a distinguished collector and donor of art to the Museum he guided, often buying for the Museum works of art acquired with his own assets. For years, the top price Mather paid for a drawing had been twenty-five dollars, but his tastes were wide-ranging, and he found himself amassing Classical and pre-Columbian antiquities, illuminated manuscripts, and works by American artists. Indeed, it was through Mather’s efforts and generosity that the Museum built a collection of American drawings that became one of the finest in the country.
Major gifts came to the Museum throughout the 1930s, including a collection of more than forty Italian paintings given by Henry White Cannon Jr., Class of 1910, from his family’s villa in Fiesole, and a collection of more than five hundred snuff bottles willed by Colonel James A. Blair, Class of 1903—still regarded as one of the finest early collections of such material in this country. In the 1930s significant gifts of Chinese and Japanese art came to Princeton to support George Rowley’s courses, the first in that field offered in an American university. Courses in American art entered the curriculum during World War II. Mather’s connections in the art world made possible important exhibitions, including showings of work by Paul Cézanne borrowed from Duncan Phillips, who had established the nation’s first museum of modern art in Washington, D.C., in 1921, and of highlights from the Museum of Modern Art, whose founding director, Alfred H. Barr Jr., was a Princeton man (Class of 1922).
Frank Mather retired as director of the Museum in 1946, but not before welcoming to Princeton many shipments of Roman mosaics and other antiquities from the excavations at Antioch-on-the-Orontes in modern-day Turkey, digs in which Princeton had a leading part. The Antioch mosaics remain a collection of ancient mosaics all but unrivaled in the United States; they can be seen both in the Museum galleries and in some of the circulatory spaces of Princeton’s Firestone Library. An equally significant gift, again numbering in the thousands of objects, came from Dan Fellows Platt, Class of 1895, and his widow, Ethel Bliss Platt. Mather once described Platt as “the most enthusiastic, learned, various, and unexpected collector I have ever known”, and the gift of Platt’s collection came to the Museum by van in wartime carrying antique Italian furniture, large drawings albums, and barrels containing paintings and other objects.
Mather was succeeded as director by Ernest DeWald, Graduate School Class of 1946, one of the so-called Monuments Men who played such an important part in the salvaging of Europe’s artistic treasures at the end of World War II. A remarkable number of Princetonians—faculty and alumni—served in this way, in recognition of which Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum lent Johannes Vermeer’s Artist in His Studio, the painting that Adolf Hitler had considered the most important acquisition for the museum he had planned as a monument to himself and to Germanic culture. As director, DeWald led the Museum into a significant commitment to art conservation—he is remembered as cleaning paintings himself in his office at the top of the old museum. DeWald oversaw the refurbishing of the Museum’s galleries for the University’s bicentenary in 1946–47, including displays of a new collection of Chinese scrolls given on the occasion by Dr. Dubois Schanck Morris, Class of 1893, and of a borrowed collection of prehistoric Chinese vessels. Indeed, the Museum’s collections of Asian art grew greatly during DeWald’s directorship, under the guidance of Professor Wen C. Fong, Class of 1951, who went on to become the founding director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Asian department. These and other strides, such as the establishment of the Friends of the Art Museum in 1949–50 and, notably, the acquisition of the Museum’s first photograph, Alfred Stieglitz’s The Steerage, in 1949, opened a new era in the Museum’s history with frequently changing temporary exhibitions and significant new outreach efforts—even while the Museum continued to be operated by a skeleton staff.
Another Monuments Man, Patrick Joseph Kelleher, Graduate School Class of 1947, became director in 1960. Following on DeWald’s efforts, Kelleher championed the dire necessity of a new home for the Museum, whose collections and activities had come to completely outstrip the spaces of the original Museum building. With the success of the University’s $53 million capital campaign (a landmark achievement of the time), a new building came into sight, and the collections were packed for removal in 1962. The A. Page Brown building and the northern portion of the Cram building were razed in 1963 to make way for an International Style design by the New York firm of Steinmann and Cain; construction was completed in 1966. During this era, the Docent Association was established to provide Museum guides and to staff the Museum Store. In these years the art of the ancient Americas became an important new focus, thanks to the prescient collecting of Gillett G. Griffin, lecturer in the Department of Art and Archaeology, faculty curator, and generous benefactor.
Visitors to the Princeton campus must inevitably come into contact with its outdoor sculpture collection, which has become one of the most important in the country. Largely the result of an anonymous benefaction named for the World War II fighter pilot John B. Putnam Jr., Class of 1945, who died in a plane crash in 1944, the John B. Putnam Jr. Memorial Collection is substantially the fruit of purchases and commissions carried out during Kelleher’s directorship and includes works by Alexander Calder, Henry Moore, Louise Nevelson, Isamu Noguchi, David Smith, and Tony Smith—works that added immeasurably to what had been a shortcoming in the collecting of modern and contemporary art.
Photography also came into focus during this time, with the gift in 1971 of the David Hunter McAlpin, Class of 1920, collection of photographs and the establishment of a fund enabling the purchase of photography. In 1972, Peter Bunnell, previously a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, came to Princeton to occupy the first endowed chair in the history of photography in the United States, also funded by McAlpin. Together, the identification of photography as a major focus of the Museum’s collecting efforts and the establishment of the McAlpin chair in the history of photography established what can be described as the most rigorous and disciplined center for the study of photography as a legitimate medium at that time. Bunnell became director of the Museum in 1973, a position he held until 1978. Bunnell’s impact as scholar, mentor, and Museum director led to the training at Princeton of generations of the nation’s leading scholars and curators of photography, and along with the initial McAlpin benefaction has led Princeton to a preeminent role in the field, with collections now numbering over 27,000 photographs as well as the archives of major figures such as Clarence White, Minor White, and Ruth Bernhard.
In 1980, Allen Rosenbaum, who had served as associate director during the Bunnell years, was promoted to director. A specialist in old master painting, Rosenbaum had the vision to build up major holdings in Renaissance and Baroque painting, particularly works in the Mannerist tradition. In addition to developing major exhibitions of Maya art and celebrating the University’s 250th anniversary, Rosenbaum led a major campaign resulting in the renovation of the Museum’s interiors and in a 27,000-square-foot addition—the Mitchell Wolfson Jr., Class of 1963, Wing, designed by Mitchell/Giurgola and dedicated in 1989. This expansion provided new exhibition space, a spacious paintings conservation studio, and new seminar and study-storage rooms for all areas of the collections, facilitating their use for teaching.
The first decade of the twenty-first century witnessed another period of growth, during which a new director, Susan M. Taylor, was able to establish the first endowed curatorships and other positions at the Museum, with the support of benefactors that included Diane and James Burke, Preston Haskell, Class of 1960, and the Peter Jay Sharp and Andrew W. Mellon Foundations. In doing so, Taylor substantially advanced the Museum’s professionalism and deepened its connections to the University’s core curriculum, both in art history and in an array of related disciplines.
Today the Museum, under the leadership of director James Steward, is one of the nation’s foremost art museums. The collections established under the directorships of Marquand and Mather, as well as those initiated later, have greatly exceeded those of a study collection. Numbering more than 97,000 objects, the collections range chronologically from ancient to contemporary art and concentrate geographically on the Mediterranean regions, Western Europe, Asia, the United States, and Latin America. An outstanding collection of Greek and Roman antiquities includes ceramics, marbles, bronzes, and Roman mosaics. Medieval Europe is represented by sculpture, metalwork, and stained glass. The collection of European paintings and sculpture includes important examples from the early Renaissance through the nineteenth century, which stand alongside a collection of prints and drawings that now numbers nearly 10,000 objects. The collection of twentieth-century and contemporary art—with a particular collecting emphasis on undervalued artists of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century—is the focus of renewed collecting activity. The collections continue to be supplemented by exceptional long-term loans whose histories are now intertwined with that of the Museum, including extraordinary collections of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings and sculpture lent by the Henry and Rose Pearlman Foundation; of modern art lent by the Sonnabend Collection; and of modern and contemporary art—including perhaps the finest collection of paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat in the world—lent by Herbert Schorr, Graduate School Class of 1963, and his wife, Lenore.
Gallery space is once again at a premium, and with no more than perhaps five percent of the collections ever on display at any given moment, new strategies are called for to continue to activate the collections and provide access to works of art not on view. The galleries are continually refreshed with new acquisitions and changing highlights from the collections, including the integration of prints, drawings, and photographs into galleries of European and American art that had until recently been dedicated exclusively to paintings and sculpture, in order to create a sense of the “period eye.” A multiyear collections inventory project is leading to the digitization of the collections, so that, in time, University users and others will be able to browse the entirety of the Museum’s holdings, including discovering the rich history and meanings of individual works of art in the Museum’s care. Planning is under way to consider how best to allow for the inevitable and perpetual growth of the Museum’s holdings, including further growth of the Museum’s already much-expanded facilities, as part of a larger strategy of bringing before the world’s eyes this dynamic set of collections whose history now encompasses more than 250 years.