The Collection Drawings

Collecting and Collections: Preserving the Tradition

Beginning of Appreciating Drawings in America: The Reverend E. L. Magoon and the American drawings collection: Magazine Antiques,  Jan, 2000  by Kevin J. Avery,  Claire A. Conway

"Beginning a collection of drawings"

The opening of the new American Wing in 1980 and the inauguration of the Henry R. Luce Center for the Study of American Art in 1988 led to the transfer, in 1990, of more than fifteen hundred American drawings from the museum's drawings department (now the department of drawings and prints) to the department of American paintings and sculpture. Thanks to the Luce Center, benefits of the transfer have included many special exhibitions of American drawings by, among others, Mary Cassatt, Arthur Bowen Davies, Thomas Eakins, John La Farge, John Singer Sargent, the American tonalists, and artists of the Hudson River school.
During the last twenty years there has been a concerted effort to enhance the American drawings collection, with notable gains in watercolors by American Pre-Raphaelites.  These developments recall the very beginning of the American drawings collection at the museum, In 1880, when the museum was only a decade old, the Reverend Elms Lyman Magoon, an aging Baptist minister, donated eighty-five gouache and watercolor works by Richards. [1]

Magoon was never a man of great means, but he was surely one of the most remarkable art patrons in the United States in the nineteenth century. [2] He was born in Lebanon, New Hampshire, and began his working life as a bricklayer. Eventually he studied at Waterville (now Colby) College in Waterville, Maine, and at the Newton Theological Institution (now Andover Newton Theological School) in Newton Centre, Massachusetts, where he was ordained a Baptist minister in 1839. On a tour of Europe in 1844 he studied religious art and architecture and soon thereafter was swept up in the general enthusiasm for John Ruskin's tract Modem Painters (5 volumes, London, 1843-1860).

During his only New York City ministry, at the Oliver Street church from 1849 to 1857, Magoon began to collect art. On a second trip abroad in 1854 he bought mainly drawings of church architecture by British and French artists and several watercolors by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851). Landscape became his passion, and by 1852 he had contributed an essay entitled "Scenery and Mind" to The Home Book of the Picturesque, a popular gift book of engravings published in New York City. By 1856 Magoon had begun to include works by American artists in his collection, and in that year he actually commissioned ten American landscape painters, including Richards, to make small oil paintings of subjects that he designated. [3]

In 1857 Magoon moved to Albany where his collection of more than four hundred works attracted the interest of the Poughkeepsie, New York, brewer and philanthropist Matthew Vassar (1792-1868). In 1864 Vassar bought Magoon's collection for the art gallery of the women's college that Vassar had founded in Poughkeepsie in 1861. Although Magoon had sometimes borrowed money to buy pictures, and he always chose carefully his motive for selling his collection was not just pecuniary. Twice his pictures had almost been destroyed by fire and water, and he felt it no less than providential that he had been solicited by Vassar, who provided a special gallery for his pictures, which would then benefit the student body of the college. [4]

In 1867 Magcon undertook his last pastorate, in Philadelphia. [5]  Three years later he met (or renewed acquaintance) with Richards, who was sketching in nearby Atlantic City, New Jersey. He immediately bought several watercolors, beginning a patronage that extended for well over a decade and included trips with Richards to the White Mountains of New Hampshire and Newport, Rhode Island. The preacher commissioned numerous small pictures of these sites. Several watercolors of New Hampshire subjects in the Magoon gift probably reflect a trip that he and Richards and their wives made together to the White Mountains in June of 1872. [6] The watercolor in Plate IV shows a small gray-haired man dressed in black who reads a book--perhaps a portrait of Magoon.

By the end of the 1870s Magoon had come to regard Richards as an American Turner and had amassed at least eighty-five of his watercolors of mountains, woodlands, and rural and coastal sites throughout the northeastern United States and even in Europe. [7]  On Thursday afternoons he opened his Philadelphia house so that the public might view his watercolors, and in 1877 he offered to loan forty works to the annual exhibition of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts along with his services as a lecturer on Sundays. However, when he learned that the academy would not be open for his lectures on Sunday afternoons, he withdrew his offer of the loan. [8]

The death of Magoon's son and only surviving heir in 1879 was one factor in his gift to the Metropolitan Museum. But surely he must have been attracted by the museum's professed ideal that "the educational characteristic must be a leading feature" of the institution. [9]  Moreover, the fresh beginning represented by the museum's new building in Central Park must have engaged him in the same way as Matthew Vassar's plans for a college art gallery had done years earlier.

As was well known in 1880, the model for the Metropolitan Museum's educational mission was the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum) in London, where the watercolors from the Turner bequest had been on display since about 1856, with the oils housed in the National Gallery. [10] The Metropolitan Museum represented to Magoon, as to any cultured American of the period, the only approximation in the United States of both London institutions.

In February 1880, a month before the Central Park building opened, Magoon toured the galleries in the company of the museum's director, General Luigi Palma di Cesnola (1832-1904), and by the end of his visit he had made his offer of the Richards watercolors. [11] In a letter to the director Magoon wrote: "Let us begin with a Richards Gallery for America, all that the Turner [Gallery] is for England." [12]

From the moment Richards learned of Magoon's gift to the museum he mixed his pleasure with "a sort of heart ache when I think of how much better the pictures ought to be to deserve such honor."  It may be that Magoon exaggerated the excellence of Richards's work, yet he could be surprisingly prescient and modest about his gift. He wrote to Samuel P. Avery (1822-1904), a founder and trustee of the museum, in 1882: "Let better men and richer contributions rise overwhelmingly and eclipse us all, and we will most heartily rejoice in being so superseded."  Two years earlier he had written to the artist seeking to temper the inevitable diminution of the gift:

My dear cooperative [Richards], the best thing for us, ultimately will be the "Metropolitan" affair. Art in America will grow, purer and grander as [years?] go by. That great nucleus will widen constantly when our hands are dust, and much better men may supervene, but we were in at the start!
Magoon's sentiments were right in a way that neither he nor Richards may ever have realized. They started the Metropolitan Museum's collection of American drawings. Despite the fact that most of the Magoon gift was sold, the pictures that were retained along with the many paintings, watercolors, drawings, and sketchbooks by Richards that have been acquired since form one of the most varied representations of the artist's work in a public institution.

Top of page


KEVIN J. AVERY is an associate curator in the department of American paintings and sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
CLAIRE A. CONWAY is a part-time research assistant in the department of American paintings and sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
(1.) For the gift, see Metropolitan Museum of Art, Tenth Annual Report of the Trustees of the Association (May 1880), pp. 8-9.
(2.) Magoon's life until 1864 is thoroughly described in Ella M. Foshay and Sally Mills, All Seasons and Every Light: Nineteenth Century American Landscapes from the Collection of Elias Lyman Magoon (Vassar College Art Gallery, Poughkeepsie, New York, 1983), pp. 7-13.
(3.) See "Sketching. Our Private Collections. No. VI" Crayon, vol. 3 (December 1856), p. 374. Magoon bought small landscapes from Frederic Edwin Church, John Frederick Kensett, Asher Brown Durand, Sanford Robinson Gifford, and William Hart, among others. From Richards he commissioned a picture called The Wealth of Nature (founerly in the Vassar College Art Gallery and now unlocated).
(4.) Foshay and Mills, All Seasons and Every Light, p.7.
(5.) Information about Magoon's later life comes born his obituary in the New York Times, November 26, 1886.
(6.) The trip is mentioned in letters born Magoon to the historian and wood engraver Benson John Lossing (1813-1891), a trustee of Vassar College, April 10, 1872, and to Martin Brewer Anderson (1815-1890), president of the University of Rochester, November 11, 1872 (Magoon papers, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie). I am grateful to Meredith Ward, the director of the Richard York Gallery in New York City, for providing me with these references. The trip is also confirmed by the hotel register born Crawford House, near Crawford Notch in the White Mountains, that is preserved in the New Hampshire Historical Society in Concord. It lists Magoon, Richards, and their wives for the night of June 17, 1872. I am grateful to Thayer Tolles, the assistant curator in the department of American paintings and sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for this reference.
(7.) Magoon wrote to the director of the Metropolitan Museum, General Luigi Palma di Cesnola, on February 18, 1880: "we will open with eighty [watercolors], hoping soon to add twenty more" (correspondence files, 1870-1950, Metropolitan Museum of Art archives). See also "American Art Chronicle: Museums and Collections," American Art Review, vol. 2 (1880), p.36.
(8.) See letters from Magoon to the president and directors of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, October 6 and 10, 1877; and Magoon to George Henry Corliss, the secretary of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, November 1, 1877 (all in the archives of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Ails, Philadelphia).
(9.) New York Evening Post, March 19, 1880.
(10.) Turner in the Clore Gallery: An Illustrated Guide (Tate Gallery, London, 1994), p. 13.
(11.) See n. 1.
(12.) Magoon to General di Cesnola, February 18, 1880 (correspondence files, 1870-1950).

Top of page

Italienne 18th C., Lavis et Plume, pen and ink wash.

Attributed to Vincenzo Neucci (1699-1766). Flying God Holding young girl. Student of Fortini et S. Galeoeti.

Jean-Baptiste Frenet:
As a young man he entered the Academy of Fine Arts in Lyon; in 1834 he went to Paris where he attended the Academy of Fine Arts and trained in the atelier of Ingres. When Ingres took up his post as the French Academy in Rome, Frenet followed. After his return to France in 1837 he worked for some time in Paris; Then settled outside of Lyon where he undertook regional commissions. Frenet, a commited Republican, became politically active in the revolution of 1848.

Jean-Baptiste Frenet's teacher Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (29 August 1780 – 14 January 1867) was a FrenchNeoclassical painter. Jean-Baptiste Frenet, c.1838 Original Drawing Charcoal and Red Chalk drawing on rare Venice Blue Paper "Sculpture Study in Rome"

Provenance: Atelier of the Artist Artist's Stamp on lower right Size of sheet of paper 25"x15" this is unusually large Exceptionally good condition, very complete drawin