European Art at Dartmouth: Highlights from the Hood Museum of Art

Posted on September 01, 2008 by Kristin Swan

Hood Quarterly, autumn 2008
T. Barton Thurber, Curator of European Art

The study of European art has long been part of the curriculum at Dartmouth College. The collection to support this mission grew gradually throughout the nineteenth century, but the introduction of art history courses in 1905 led to a significant expansion of the College's holdings. A dramatic increase in gifts and acquisitions occurred after the 1985 opening of the Hood Museum of Art, which now houses several thousand European objects dating from the Renaissance to the early twentieth century.

The introduction of formal instruction in art history corresponded with the establishment of the Guernsey Center Moore Fund "to purchase objects of artistic merit and value, to be kept, exhibited, and used by [the Trustees of Dartmouth College] to encourage and promote the interest and education in art of the students." Moore's donation, set up in memory of his son, who died in his sophomore year in 1901, marked the College's first acquisitions endowment.

Throughout the twentieth century a number of enlightened faculty members, administrators, and benefactors reaf- firmed the fundamental need for students to gain firsthand knowledge about art through direct contact with original objects. One of the earliest and most enthusiastic proponents was George B. Zug (1867–1943), who had taught art history at Dartmouth from 1913 to 1932. Immediately after arriving he introduced the practice of working with originals, both in the classroom and in temporary exhibitions. During the first three years of his tenure, for example, he coordinated fifteen installations in the Little Theater of Robinson Hall. Many of these were monographic displays, sometimes focusing on European printmakers, such as the French nineteenth-century artists Honoré Daumier and Jean-François Millet.

Over the course of successive decades, while paintings, sculptures, works on paper, and other objects rapidly accumulated at Dartmouth, the works were stored and displayed in various buildings located throughout the campus. Finally, in 1976, Peter Smith, at that time director of the Hopkins Center, cogently outlined the need for an independent art museum "devoted to the exhibition and contemplation of works of art . . . to teach students the kind of connoisseurship and visual discrimination which can make the crucial difference for artist and art historian alike, as well as for the future patron, collector, critic, trustee or curator." The funding to meet this goal was assured in 1978 when the College received a large bequest from Harvey P. Hood (1897–1978), Class of 1918 and a College trustee from 1941 to 1967. The donation was supplemented by additional gifts from members of the Hood family and other benefactors. On September 28, 1985, the Hood Museum of Art opened to the public.

The new museum inherited many fine examples of European art assembled since the founding of the College, especially an extraordinary array of prints. There were also some other noteworthy pre-twentieth-century objects. Yet old master paintings, sculptures, and drawings were rarely purchased before the museum's establishment. With the support of alumni and friends, the museum began to receive financial support for the acquisition of distinctive works of art, which were supplemented with other notable gifts. As a result, during the last twenty-three years the collection has obtained a number of significant objects illustrating key aspects of the history of European art. At this point, in addition to its established commitment to the study of art, Dartmouth now has the ability to represent some of the great trends of the European pictorial tradition.

While the facilities, collections, programs, and funding have evolved considerably since the first European objects arrived at Dartmouth in the late eighteenth century, the central objective has remained the same: to acquire "objects of artistic merit and value . . . to encourage and promote the interest and education in art" (as stipulated by the Guernsey Center Moore 1904 Memorial Fund). This donor's aims recalled the words of Charles Eliot Norton (1827–1908), the original professor of art history in the United States, less than a decade before: "It is through the study and knowledge of works of the fine arts . . . that the imagination—the supreme faculty of human nature—is mainly to be cultivated." Over a century later, in 2005, the staff of the Hood Museum of Art reaffirmed the continued relevance of these sentiments by stating that the institution's "purpose . . . is to inspire, educate, and collaborate with our college and broader community about creativity and imagination through direct engagement with works of art of historic and cultural significance." The latest plans for the future of the European art collection have been formed with a profound appreciation for the achievements and ambitions of previous generations of dedicated trustees, administrators, faculty members, directors, curators, donors, and other supporters.

New acquisitions considerably enhance the museum's ability to respond to the growing needs of larger and more diverse student and public audiences by promoting understanding and enjoyment of the visual arts. These purchases and gifts would not be possible without the support of alumni and friends. Chief among those who have made the most significant donations toward increasing the scope and quality of the European collection since the opening of the Hood Museum of Art are Jean and Adolph Weil Jr., Class of 1935, Jane and W. David Dance, Class of 1940, and Barbara Dau Southwell, Class of 1978, and David Southwell, Tuck 1988. Their generosity has laid a solid foundation for the future development of European art at Dartmouth.

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Written September 01, 2008 by Kristin Swan