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By Stephen May

BRUNSWICK, MAINE — Long recognized as one of the nation’s finest college art museums, located in a landmark building, the renovated and expanded Bowdoin College Museum of Art reopened last October to much acclaim. Impressed visitors have called the revamped facility “elegant and beautiful” and a model for restoring a historic museum building.

The ambitious, $20.8 million project begun in 2003 includes the addition of a dramatic, new glass entry pavilion that respects the integrity of the original structure and renovation of the entire interior of the building. It adds significant space in which to showcase the museum’s eclectic permanent collection. The project is part of a $250 million Bowdoin campaign aimed at upgrading the entire campus.

Chartered in 1794 and opened in 1802, Maine’s oldest college is named for James Bowdoin II, a Massachusetts governor whose son generously endowed the fine liberal arts institution. Among the college’s most famous alumni are writers Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, President Franklin Pierce, Senator and Secretary of the Treasury William Pitt Fessenden, Arctic explorers Robert E. Peary and Donald B. Macmillan, Senator and Major League Baseball investigator George Mitchell, and Senator and Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen.

The museum began in 1811 with James Bowdoin III’s gift of 70 paintings and a portfolio of Old Master drawings, making it one of the nation’s oldest college art collections. With holdings ranging from the ancient world to the Twenty-First Century, and housed in a building designed by Charles Follen McKim of McKim, Mead and White, the augmented museum will be an even more valuable resource for the college, community and art world in general. The renovation and underground expansion increases the museum’s total space 63 percent — from 19,980 to 32,500 square feet — and expands the number of galleries from nine to 14.

The highlight of the above-ground architectural elements is the new entry pavilion — an expansive glass and bronze structure housing a glass elevator and “floating” steel staircase. Behind a large glass curtain wall are displayed the museum’s famed Assyrian bas-reliefs.

The new complex, says Katy Kline, the museum’s director, “celebrates our role as a leader in college art museums and our mission to broaden knowledge and inspire all our visitors.” In her tenth year at Bowdoin after serving as director of the List Visual Arts Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Kline sees the museum “as a laboratory for thinking about just about anything.”

College museums, she noted in her remarks at the building’s reopening, are “grounded in a context of intellectual inquiry…motivated by curiosity, by research and investigation.” The museum’s relatively small size enhances the viewing experience, enables quick responses to “varied constituencies” and “can be a place of experiment, for the asking of questions without the certainty of a sure and immediate answer,” said Kline.

The museum’s Walker Art Building, designated a National Historic Landmark, was commissioned in the 1890s for the college by Harriet and Sophia Walker in honor of their uncle, Theophilus Wheeler Walker, a Boston businessman. Broad-ranging collectors and supporters of art education, the sisters stipulated that the building be used exclusively for art. Their architect, McKim, received an honorary degree from Bowdoin, and his firm went on to design a half-dozen other buildings on campus.

Completed in 1894, the neoclassical Walker Art Building’s brick, granite and limestone façade features sculptures of Sophocles and Demosthenes, and is punctuated by a wide stair leading to a loggia flanked by lion sculptures inspired by those at the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence, Italy.

The interior continues to feature a central rotunda with a high coffered dome, surrounded by three sky-lit galleries on the entrance level. With the beneficence of the Walker sisters, McKim commissioned four murals by leaders of the American Renaissance movement — Kenyon Cox, John La Farge, Abbott Thayer and Elihu Vedder — that surround the rotunda. Each is an allegorical representation of one of the four cities perceived at the time as central to the development of Western art: Athens, Florence, Rome and Venice.

Building on James Bowdoin III’s initial donations, the museum’s current collections comprise more than 14,000 objects in categories including ancient, European, non-Western, American, Modern and contemporary, and prints, drawings and photography.

The antiquities holdings include more than 1,800 Assyrian, Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Byzantine objects, a rare trove for a small museum. Spanning the Fourth Millennium BC to the Fourth Century AD, these objects in bronze, glass, ivory, marble, stone and terra cotta illustrate cultural links among ancient Mediterranean cultures and how developing cultures borrowed from and built upon earlier ones. Highlights include the six large relief sculptures from an Assyrian king’s palace, which will be visible through the rear glass curtain wall, and an expressive marble portrait head of Antoninus Pius, the Roman emperor who succeeded Hadrian, by an unknown artist.

The European collection runs the gamut from a carved royal head from Chartres Cathedral to Seventeenth Century Dutch canvases to Nineteenth Century French paintings, like a harbor view by Eugene Boudin, to contemporary objects. Included among the paintings and works on paper are selections by Fra Angelico, Boilly, Rosa Bonheur, Corot, Correggio, Klee, Magritte, Picasso, Rembrandt and Ruskin, and sculptures by Michelangelo, Rodin and Giacometti.

Reflecting the museum’s non-Western holdings is the exhibition, “Glimpses into the Floating World: The History of Ukiyo-E,” on view through June 22, that features examples of Japanese works on paper.

The strength of Bowdoin’s American art collection remains its core group of colonial and Federal-era paintings by the likes of John Brewster, John Singleton Copley, Robert Feke, Rembrandt Peale, Gilbert Stuart, Thomas Sully and Benjamin West. Standouts among the nine Stuarts are iconic, pendant portraits of Presidents Jefferson and Madison, commissioned by James Bowdoin III. Stuart visited the Bowdoin campus in 1821 to make copies of each likeness.

Among the Fekes are stalwart portraits of James Bowdoin II and his wife. There are seven works in oil and watercolors by Maurice Prendergast, eight oils by John Sloan, including “Sunday Afternoon in Union Square,” and nearly a score of works by Rockwell Kent, including several beauties of Maine’s Monhegan Island.

There are numerous watercolors, prints and drawings by Winslow Homer, including fascinating early engravings that were published in such periodicals as The Galaxy and Harper’s Weekly. Included in an important archive of artifacts and memorabilia from his studio in Prout’s Neck, Maine, are Homer’s palette and mannequins and family photographs. There is a nice watercolor flower study by Homer’s mother, Henrietta Benson Homer. Much of this material was gathered by the museum’s distinguished former director and Homer authority Philip C. Beam.

The American section also boasts works by Beaux, Bierstadt, Burchfield, Cassatt, Chase, Cornell, Cropsey, Eakins, Daniel Chester French, Glackens, Hartley, Heade, Henri, Hesse, Inness, Eastman Johnson, Joshua Johnson, Katz, Kline, Jacob Lawrence, Lichtenstein, Marin, Peto, Fairfield Porter, Maurice Prendergast, Sargent, Tanner, Andrew Wyeth and Marguerite and William Zorach. (William’s crouching bronze football player, “The Lineman,” stands out on the campus grounds.)

Photography holdings include examples by Man Ray, Dorothea Lange, Paul Strand and Robert Mapplethorpe.

In keeping with director Kline’s belief that “We thrive on the idea-based, thematic exhibition,” during its inaugural year the museum is featuring a series of shows that underscore the range and scope of its collections, including contemporary prints and drawings, and American portraits and landscapes, 1850–1940.

“Beauty and Duty: The Art and Business of Renaissance Marriage,” on view through July 27, was inspired by a colorful painting owned by the museum that once ornamented an early Fifteenth Century Florentine cassone (wooden marriage chest). Its love-struck shepherd, worried parents, goddesses and nymphs interpret scenes from a Giovanni Boccaccio tale, “The Nymphs of Fiesole.”

This work is joined by paintings, prints, sculpture, furniture, medals and books from Bowdoin’s collections and other museums to explore the concept of marriage in Renaissance Italy.

One of the most interesting exhibitions is “The Walker Sisters and Collecting in Victorian Boston,” running through August 24, drawn from the diverse, sometimes quirky, personal collection that the museum founders assembled and eventually donated to the museum. In keeping with the Victorian and Aesthetic movements of the late Nineteenth Century, Harriet and Mary Walker acquired Asian armor, bronze portrait medals, furniture, glassware and pastoral landscapes, examples of which are displayed in a Victorian-style interior reminiscent of their home at Gore Place in Waltham, Mass.

Several long-term installations feature treasured selections from the museum’s permanent holdings displayed in new presentations:

“Palace Reliefs from Kalhu (Nimrud)” showcases Bowdoin’s extraordinary holdings of stone panels touting the accomplishments of an Assyrian king, Ashurnasirpal II, who had them carved in the Ninth Century BC to decorate the walls of the royal palace in ancient Kalhu. After the palace was sacked in the Seventh Century BC, the reliefs remained buried until they were rediscovered in the 1840s and given to the college in 1860.

“Ars Antiqua: Ancient Pastimes and Passions” displays sculpture, pottery, coins, cups, lamps, jewelry and other art objects that reflect ancient love of athletics, theater, music and luxury, and fascination with deities and the human figure, form and identity.

“Ancient Art, Immortal Dreams” utilizes objects of ritual significance, such as portrait heads and funerary jewels and vessels, to explore the notion of “life after death” in the ancient cultures of Egypt, Greece and Rome.

“The Human Figure — 2500 BC to 2000 AD,” a show in the rotunda, explores interpretations of this fundamental form in Western art through seven sculptures, from an early Cycladic marble torso, a plaster cast of Michelangelo’s “Dying Slave” and works by Rodin and Giacometti to a contemporary piece by Joel Shapiro.

“Seeing and Believing: 600 Years in Europe” is a thematically arranged survey of European holdings in paintings and works in bronze, stone, wood and ivory that compares and contrasts depictions of history, myth, religion and secular activities. Among the highlights: a Gothic carved head of a king from Chartres Cathedral and an early Twentieth Century Cubist landscape.

A highly regarded, independent, coeducational liberal arts institution with some 1,700 students, Bowdoin has significantly increased its standing with the reopening of its expanded and renovated art museum. It is not only a boon to art lovers on and off campus, but a significantly enhanced jewel on the college’s scenic grounds. As director Kline puts it, a “spirit of inquiry puts us in a position to help transmit the values of the academy to the larger world…We are poised to become a cultural magnet for the entire region.”

The Bowdoin College Museum of Art at 9400 College Station is on the Quad at the heart of the campus. It is open Tuesdays through Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm, Thursday evenings to 8:30 pm, and Sundays 1 to 5 pm; closed Mondays. For general information, www.bowdoin.edu/art-museum, artmuseum@bowdoin.edu or 207-725-3275.

Expanded Bowdoin College Museum Of Art Reopens

Bowdoin College Museum Of Art Expands

Bowdoin College Museum Of Art


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The museum’s ancient Assyrian reliefs are now shown in a space flanked by an expansive glass wall. —Facundo de Zuviria photo


Arguably the museum’s best-known painting is Gilbert Stuart’s “Portrait of Thomas Jefferson,” circa 1805–1807, a pendant likeness with that of Madison. It is an iconic image of the third American president. Each presidential portrait measures 48½ by nearly 40 inches. Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine, bequest of the Honorable James Bowdoin III.

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John La Farge (1835–1910), a leading artist of his day, was known for working with top architects to design murals and stained glass works in churches and other large buildings. This made him a natural for Charles Follen McKim to ask to create “Athens” as one of the 1894 lunette murals for the museum’s rotunda. Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine, gift of the Misses Harriet Sarah and Mary Sophia Walker.

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Among the treasures of the museum’s Winslow Homer (1836–1910) collection is his evocative “The Fountains at Night, World’s Columbian Exposition,” 1893, a striking painting in varying shades of blacks and grays. The illumination of much of the fair by then-novel electric lights stimulated the artist, who visited with his brother, to explore unfamiliar effects of artificial light on objects. Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine, gift of Mrs Charles Savage Homer Jr.

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“After the Storm, Vinhalhaven,” 1938–1939, by Marsden Hartley (1877–1943), shows the outstanding modernist at his best, after he returned to his native Maine to paint its rugged typography and hardy people. Here, wind-whipped waves assault muscular rock formations off a midcoast island in Penobscot Bay in a scene replete with blocky clouds and a pine-covered shoreline. Bowdoin Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine, gift of Mrs Charles Phillip Kuntz.

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Combining the old and the new, the original façade and statuary contrast with the new glass addition to the Bowdoin Museum of Art. —©Blind Dog Photography


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The Bowdoin College Museum of Art’s original Walker Art Building, designed by McKim, Mead and White in 1894, is now flanked by a new addition on the left, designed by Machado & Silvetti Associates. —©Blind Dog Photography







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A highlight of the museum’s American collection is “Portrait of James Madison,” circa 1805–1807, by Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828). It offers a somber image of the simply-dressed, diminutive Founding Father and fourth US president. Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine, bequest of the Honorable James Bowdoin III.



A series of Assyrian bas-reliefs that tout achievements of an ancient king are among highlights of the Bowdoin collection. —Tannery Hill Studio photo

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“Portrait Head of Emperor Antoninus Pius,” circa 138–150 BC, depicting the emperor who succeeded Hadrian, reflects the outstanding technical skills of Roman sculptors. This has been called by a leading classical scholar “one of the finest imperial heads in marble in America.” Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine, gift of Edward Perry Warren, Esq, honorary degree, 1926.

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The museum boasts a quintessential mother-and-child pastel, “The Barefoot Child,” 1897, by American expatriate star Mary Cassatt (1844–1926). Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine, gift of Mrs Murray S. Danforth, in memory of her husband, Dr Murray S. Danforth, Class of 1901.

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In “Newburyport Marshes, Passing Storm,” circa 1865–1870, Martin Johnson Heade (1819–1904) immortalized a favorite haunt, which included a salt marsh and a tranquil farm scene beyond the curvilinear waterbed. Bowdoin Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine, museum purchase, with the aid of the Sylvia E. Ross Fund.

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From the museum’s European collection, Julien Dupre’s “Women in the Fields,” circa 1880, is a characteristic Barbizon School image of sturdy peasant women hard at work in a field. Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine, bequest of Ella Pratt.

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Reflecting the breadth of Bowdoin’s holdings, “The Meeting of Jacob and Joseph in Egypt,” 1636, is a large, multifigured recollection of a Biblical incident by an Amsterdam painter, Claes Cornelisz. Moeyaert (1591–1655). The somber foreground scene is animated by a backdrop of animals and a ruined castle. Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine, museum purchase, Florence C. Quinby Fund, in memory of Henry Cole Quinby, honorary degree, 1916.

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The museum’s expanded galleries offer more space to showcase art of ancient Mediterranean cultures. —Facundo de Zuviria photo

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The soaring central rotunda of the original museum building still features four lunette murals below the dome, including Kenyon Cox’s “Venice” of 1894. —©Blind Dog Photography

View of Entrance pavillion

A new glass and bronze entry pavilion to the south of the original museum building houses a glass elevator and “floating” staircase. —©Blind Dog Photography

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