Museum discourse today, particularly in its market-driven, super-heated rhetorical guise, tends to regard the terms “university art museum” and “teaching collection” as denoting lesser entities. It is as if a teaching and research mission in a university context somehow excludes or renders tangential great works of art; or that transcendent images or objects in that environment are simply the equivalent of, as one critic recently suggested, “gym equipment for pumping up art historians.”
While university art museums are purposely not structured as “masterpiece” collections—teaching and research initiatives stretch far beyond the usual collecting imperatives of aesthetic and historical distinctiveness—a very few have extraordinarily rich holdings that defy such a model. The Harvard University Art Museums and its works by Edgar Degas perfectly illustrate that exception. Rich, deep, and broad in its contents and ranging across a variety of media, Degas at Harvard underscores this institution’s historic commitment to Degas and his role in the development of modern art. Marjorie B. Cohn and Jean Sutherland Boggs beautifully evoke the individuals and attitudes so instrumental to collecting Degas here at the Art Museums, narratives replete with elements of vision, persistence, and even doubt. Those impulses ultimately arc back to a little-known fact that forever binds together Degas and Harvard: the Fogg Art Museum’s loan show of 1911 was the artist’s only one-man exhibition held during his lifetime in any museum in the world.
With some seventy works by the artist, in number alone Harvard’s collection is impressive. It is equally impressive to see how these holdings continue to be strengthened and enhanced. Well represented at the Harvard Art Museums are Degas’s earliest works as a student, when he made insightful copies of some of the masterworks of earlier periods. Remarkable too are the important canvases painted during Degas’s stay with his family in New Orleans. The collection can also claim such canonical ballet-related works as the sculpture of the Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen and The Rehearsal, a painting that was actually part of the 1911 exhibition. And then there are the bold bather drawings of the artist’s later career, which were a particular passion of Paul Sachs, one of the great champions of drawings in the twentieth century. The University’s collection also invites a glimpse into Degas’s private world, with intimate portrait photographs, a rare publication of some of his sonnets, printed privately and distributed only to the artist’s closest circle of friends, and a letter written one August evening to the sculptor Bartholomé.
This rich body of work, like all collections at the Fogg, Busch-Reisinger, and Sackler museums, is fundamentally a “working” collection, but one of the very highest order. It is continually used in a variety of ways by students, faculty, researchers, conservators, conservation scientists, interns, fellows, and general visitors—all the constituents of a teaching museum. Degas at Harvard convincingly demonstrates the fundamental role works of art play in an advanced university education. The works included not only elucidate cultural, social, and creative currents in nineteenth-century France, but are also evidence of cognitive and visual processes that have no medium of communication other than a work of art. In short, these extraordinary works teach in ways that the rest of Harvard cannot. Perhaps most important, they help shape critical looking and thinking in unexpected ways, in the process transforming lives, and is that not the essence of a university education?
None of this would happen, of course, without the foresight and generosity of many individuals who helped create this great resource. As the authors make abundantly clear, the Fogg’s own Paul Sachs played a pivotal role in the collecting of Degas in the United States, including generous and important gifts of his own to us. We would like to think that his spirit has infused those who followed in his footsteps with gifts to the collection, and those who continue along that path with recent or promised gifts: Marjorie B. and Martin Cohn, Janine and J. Tomilson Hill, David Leventhal, Emily Rauh Pulitzer, and Mrs. Arthur K. Solomon. Their generosity has both strengthened and broadened the capabilities of our holdings, and we are forever grateful. Edward Saywell had the initial idea for an exhibition of Harvard’s Degas works, and we owe thanks to him and to Stephan Wolohojian for organizing it, as well as for researching and coordinating the checklist information. We are also deeply thankful to those who helped make this exhibition and catalogue project possible with their usual understanding and generosity—again, Mrs. Arthur K. Solomon, Manson Benedict, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Finally, I want to thank Professor Edward L. Keenan, director of Harvard’s Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, for kindly agreeing to loan their two important Degas paintings, and Michael Clarke, director of the National Gallery of Scotland, where the paintings had been on loan, for making possible their further loan to us, as well as William Stoneman of Houghton Library, for the important loans from their deep holdings.
Thomas W. Lentz
Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director