Celebrating the Forbes Family of Collectors

On the occasion of the 50th reunion of Christopher “Kip” Forbes, Class of 1972

Man standing in a dark suit with a large portrait painting behind him From the origins of art collecting at Princeton in the 1750s, generations of Princeton University alumni and other friends have gifted works of art that have helped to shape today’s Museum, containing over 113,000 works spanning the globe and more than 5,000 years of human history. Certain names may be known to museumgoers, including those of past directors such as Allan Marquand, Class of 1874, and Frank Jewett Mather, who as men of personal wealth assembled significant art collections, most of which eventually came to the Museum. Others might be familiar from the names of galleries in the “old” Museum in McCormick Hall, names like C. Otto von Kienbusch, Class of 1906, or Peter B. Lewis, Class of 1955. Still others might be recognizable to assiduous readers of the Museum’s interpretive labels, who would note that the financial bequest of Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, has made possible decades of purchases of works of art, joining those works that came by donation.

As we approach the first in-person alumni Reunions to be held since June 2019, we celebrate one family of benefactors whose generosity across many years has brought a range of extraordinary works of art to Princeton for the benefit of generations of students and general visitors—the family of Malcom Forbes, Class of 1941; his sons Malcolm “Steve” Forbes Jr., Class of 1970, and Christopher “Kip” Forbes, Class of 1972; and other members of their family, including Kip’s daughter Charlotte Forbes Escaravage, Class of 1997, and Steve’s daughter Moira Forbes, Class of 2001. In surveying the many works that came from individual members of the family, from them in various combinations, or from the now disbanded Forbes Magazine Collection, what is striking is both the range of the works they collected and donated to Princeton and their quality, worthy of a scholar’s eye. 

The family name will be known to many, of course, for their role in founding and managing Forbes magazine, first established in 1917 and shepherded by Malcolm Sr. between 1964 and his death in 1990. Followers of the art world will know that Malcolm was an avid and eclectic collector of everything from Fabergé eggs to Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Highlights of the family’s collections were installed in the Forbes Galleries in the Forbes Building on New York’s Fifth Avenue until their closure in 2014; much of the collection—particularly its extraordinary depth in Victorian painting and decorative arts—was also installed at Old Battersea House, the London home of the Forbes family, until that collection was dispersed in 2011. 

Beyond the family’s own walls, then, it is fair to say that the Princeton collections provide the deepest insights into the tastes and interests of this remarkable family of collectors. Pride of place must surely go to the extraordinary and idiosyncratic painting by Peter Paul Rubens and his studio, Cupid Supplicating Jupiter (ca. 1611–15), donated to Princeton by the Forbes Magazine Collection and the family in 1992. Once installed behind Malcolm’s desk, in recent years it anchored the Museum’s galleries of Baroque art, as surely it will again when the new Museum opens in late 2024.

A survey of the works gifted over the decades reveals many that have had a sustained presence in our galleries—from Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s Marble Polisher (1882–87) to Albert Joseph Moore’s A Flower Walk (1874–75) to Benjamin West’s Two Officers and a Groom in a Landscape (1777). Often intimate in scale, these are works equally suited to a private collection or a public gallery, and they reveal much about the social and artistic values of their respective times. What might be more surprising are works that could be seen at first as outliers: the ancient Etruscan alabastron donated by Kip and his wife Astrid in 1990, or the remarkable collection of contemporary kinetic works donated by the Forbes Magazine Collection in the 1970s, some of which will be undergoing conservation to ready them for display in our future galleries.

As Reunions approach, I want to pay particular tribute to the years of advocacy, generosity, and friendship that Kip Forbes has brought both to the Museum and to me since I became director in 2009. Many of the family’s most heartfelt gifts have come from Kip, including an exceptionally rare British daguerreotype from 1855 donated in 1976 and Bruce Nauman’s neon piece Double Poke in the Eye II (1985), donated on the occasion of his 40th reunion. With the new Museum now under construction—a project for which Kip has long advocated as a member of the Museum’s Advisory Council, on which he has served since 2003—Kip is stepping up as a leader once again with a remarkable group of works that he is committing to the Museum as part of our Campaign for Art—the effort to secure for the Museum significant new gifts and promised gifts of art on the occasion of the new building. Only a few of these works are signaled in this online exhibition, but they include such highlights as Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Regina Cordium (1870s), Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s portrait bust of Davida Johnson Clark (1885), and the delicate and haunting self-portrait drawing by Paul Cadmus. Kip lives with art as intensely and with as much delight as any collector I know, shaped by decades of study and looking. 

Of particular satisfaction to me is that the Forbes family have committed to giving us the remarkable portrait of Malcolm Forbes Sr. by Claudio Bravo, the Chilean-born hyperrealist painter who died in 2011. I very much like the idea of one day installing this painting of Malcolm in his grey motorcycle leathers, which long hung in the lobby of the Forbes Building, alongside the Forbes Rubens—one titan by another in the spirit of serious play that has long informed this family of collectors. 

James Christen Steward
Nancy A. Nasher—David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976, Director