“Chapel, Sophia Walker Gallery, Southeast Corner”, Local Call Number 1359, Bowdoin College Archives, Brunswick, Maine.

Classical Paintings from James Bowdoin III’s Collection: Revered or Discarded

Susan Wegner

“Chapel, Sophia Walker Gallery, Southeast Corner”, Local Call Number 1359, Bowdoin College Archives, Brunswick, Maine.

This photograph, taken at some time before 1894, shows the mythological painting of Venus hanging among other works in the Bowdoin College Chapel, Sophia Walker Gallery. In the painting—which is a copy of a Titian (c. 1488–1576)—Venus twists, displaying her lovely naked back as she vainly tries to prevent Adonis, her beloved, from leaving on a dangerous hunt. In the photograph, her pale flesh reflects the rose light from the chapel’s large, stained-glass window: an alluring pagan goddess lifted up in a Christian space. This is just one of the ironies entwined within James Bowdoin III’s (1752–1811) collection of paintings gifted to the College in 1813. This essay reflects on a few of Bowdoin’s classically themed paintings and their resonance in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century culture.

Art as refining taste and character

Bowdoin likely shared the centuries-old belief espoused by eighteenth-century theorists and collectors that art could improve taste and refine character. In 1715, Jonathan Richardson opined that “a painting which conveys an edifying or instructive thought is better than one which is merely attractive.” Horace Walpole, speaking in 1772 on his copy of Poussin’s Continence of Scipio, judged it “painted with all the Purity and Propriety of an ancient Bassrelief.” The catalogue for the newly opened Musée des Monuments français stated, “The cultivation of the arts of a people increases its commerce and prosperity, purifies its morals[…].” Bowdoin III grew up in a household rich with art and, thus, may well have already shared similar ideas about the probity and educational value of painting. His education in England, tours of Europe, and service in Paris could have reenforced such beliefs. 

Bowdoin College’s leaders later proclaimed this same confidence in art’s moral power. Bowdoin President Leonard Woods reiterated this understanding when discussing his 1840 trip to Oxford: “[…] a magnificence of architecture, an assemblage of paintings […] does more to purify the taste and elevate the character than the whole encyclopedias of knowledge.”

Classically Themed Paintings: Visibility, Praise, and Expurgation

Despite visits to Naples, Pompeii, and Rome during his Grand Tour of Europe (1774–1775), it seems Bowdoin did not collect authentic ancient Greek and Roman antiquities. He did, however, amass numerous paintings, prints, and drawings of classical themes in his art collections. These often filtered the ancient stories through sixteenth- and seventeenth-century versions as depicted by highly esteemed Old Masters such as Titian, Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), and Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640). Bowdoin’s appreciation for the classical world stands out prominently in the five largest and most eye-catching paintings among his gifts to the college: three copies after Titian, Venus and Adonis, Venus Educating Cupid, and Danaë and the Shower of Gold, a copy after Poussin’s Continence of Scipio, and a so-called Venus and Ceres.

Bed of Polyclitus, Renaissance copy of antique relief, marble.

Bowdoin’s large copy after Titian’s Venus and Adonis may well have been admired for its emulation of an ancient sculpture. The beautiful view of Venus’s back derives from a relief much-praised in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italy as an antique work, the so-called Bed of Polyclitus, copied by painters for centuries. The tragic story of Venus and Adonis derives from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. As Bowdoin collected with the aim of giving away his library, he made special efforts to get “the best and latest French translation of Latin & Greek classicks,” and acquired the illustrated 1770 French edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

A second Titian copy, Danaë with the Shower of Gold, was likely meant to originally have been displayed as a pendant to the Venus and Adonis. However, in the 1850s the College’s Board of Overseers judged it unfit for display, and it was eventually sold. Presumably, the frontal nudity of Danaë and Cupid and the sexually suggestive theme of Jupiter’s visit to the princess doomed the picture to expulsion. Defending their position regarding the Danaë, the Board wrote in 1850, “The purity of morals should […] be allowed to hazard no contamination from spectacles thought among us to be in bad taste.” Two other classically themed paintings, Callisto’s Pregnancy Revealed by Diana’s Nymphs and a small Venus and Adonis were also severed from the collection at the same time.

Titian, Danaë and the Shower of Gold, 1560–1565, Oil. Image Bank of the Museo del Prado, Copyright ©Museo Nacional del Prado.

In contrast to the Danaë, a copy of Nicolas Poussin’s Continence of Scipio Africanus fared much better, having been judged by the painter Gilbert Stuart to be an original or a first-rate copy.

Painting of a Roman general bowing before a seated figure and a woman while a group of soldiers looks on. Smoke fills the sky from a distant battle.

John Smibert, The Continence of Scipio, ca. 1726, oil on canvas. Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Bequest of the Honorable James Bowdoin III, 1813.10.

View object record

This composition had already been praised by Walpole as a display of sound moral action. Marked by Poussin’s deeply classicizing style, the painting bases its composition upon reliefs such as a seated emperor and his troops on the Arch of Constantine. The details of numerous Roman reliefs provided models for a soldier dressed in an animal pelt head covering, a scaled cuirass, a rectangular shield, and embodiments of Roman law, lictors holding fasces.

Although the Scipio painting centers on a young woman taken as a spoil of war, the theme of the general’s self-restraint and generosity overshadows that disturbing content, which may explain why the painting was not purged by the 1850 Board of Overseers.

The other three largest paintings of the collection also avoided expulsion. The Titian copy of Venus and Adonis shows an innocuous back view of the goddess, while the Titian copy of Venus Educating Cupid, presents a tastefully draped Venus. The jolly rotund females of the Venus and Ceres also raised no objections from the Board.

The subjects of the classical paintings removed by the Board of Overseers had all focused on explicitly sexual topics like seduction, pregnancy, and an amorous embrace. Such representations had been acceptable within the private household of the wealthy James Bowdoin III, who moved in international intellectual circles. However, these same images became objectionable as more conservative stewards of the College considered their effects on a new audience in a different context—young men being educated to become preachers. While looking at images of modest Venuses was acceptable, an educational institution would not continue to display a painting of a languorous nude receiving a divine love or a canvas of Diana’s nymphs revealing the pregnant belly of the disgraced Callisto.

The Boards’ decision did not mark some overall cultural antipathy toward classical images or even classical nudes; by cherry-picking the classical pictures that fit its purposes Bowdoin College was following the prevailing American tendency at that time. Just as educators pruned Ovid’s writing of salacious passages for young readers, so too were these overly sensual images expurgated.

Susan Wegner is an Associate Professor of Art History, Chair of Department of Art and the Director of Art History Division at Bowdoin College


Jonathan Richardson, Two Discourses: I. An Essay on the Whole Art of Criticism, as it Relates to Painting ... II. An Argument in Behalf of the Science of a Connoisseur; Wherein is Shewn the Dignity, Certainty, Pleasure, and Advantage of it, (United Kingdom: W. Churchill, 1719), 105. Cited in Susan Wegner, “Copies and Education: James Bowdoin III’s Painting Collection in the Life of the College,” The Legacy, of James Bowdoin III (Brunswick, Me, 1994), 145–146, 168, n. 25.


In a long entry, Horace Walpole quotes the text of Livy, Lib XXVI, Cap. 50, and an English poem. Horace Walpole, Aedes Walpolianae, Or, A Description of the Collection of Pictures at Houghton-Hall in Norfolk, the Seat of the Right Honourable Sir Robert Walpole, Earl of Oxford, (1752), 75–92.


Alexandre Lenoir, Musée des monuments français, ou, Description historique et chronologique des statues en marbre et en bronze, bas-reliefs et tombeaux des hommes et des femmes célèbres : pour servir à l'histoire de France et à celle de l'art : ornée de gravures…, vol 1, (Paris: L’imprimerie de Guillemenint, 1800), 1, “La culture des arts chez un peuple, agrandit son commerce et ses moyens, épure ses mœurs,…” James Bowdoin III owned both the 1803 and 1806 editions. Translation by John Fischer, 2021. Bowdoin’s library does not hold a copy of Richardson or Walpole, but he may well have come to know them from others’ libraries. See Eliza Goodpasture, “James Bowdoin III’s Collection in Context: On Historical Roots and Their Legacies,” Bowdoin College Museum of Art. link


Warren L. Draper, The Life and Character of Leonard Woods, D.D. L.L.D. (Andover, 1880), 44.


Bowdoin did have in his library a text on Roman antiquity that included images of vases, frescoes, and coins. Alexander Adams, Roman antiquities, 1797. Bowdoin Professor of Classics, Alpheus Spring Packard used this at least since 1827 in teaching freshman students, Bowdoin Catalogue, 1827.


David Rosand, “Titian and the 'Bed of Polyclitus'.” The Burlington Magazine, vol. 117, no. 865, (1975) 242–5. www.jstor.org/stable/877984. Accessed 18 July 2021.


Ovid was not taught at the college until the twentieth century, when he is included in the freshmen’s course on Roman Elegiac Poetry. Bowdoin Catalogue, 1901–02, 46.


In an 1802 letter to Jesse Putnam. In Kenneth E. Carpenter, “James Bowdoin III as Library Builder,” in The Legacy, of James Bowdoin III, (Brunswick, Me, 1994), 103.


Les Métamorphoses d'Ovide : gravées sur les dessins des meilleurs peintres français. (Paris: Chez Basan ... Le Mire), 1770.


The “Farnese” version of the Danaë, like the one in Naples. For more on the nudity in this painting see Andrew Hopkins, “America’s first public nude painting,” Nov 21, 2010. link;

Also see William T. Oedel, “After Paris: Rembrandt Peale's Apollodorian Gallery.” Winterthur Portfolio 27, no. 1 (1992): 1-27; E. McSherry Oedel, “Without a Blush: The Movement toward Acceptance of the Nude as an Art Form in America, 1800-1825.” Winterthur Portfolio 9 (1974): 103–21. link


Wegner, “Copies and Education,” 179–80. The Bowdoin Danaë was traced to Brooklyn in the early twentieth century, research by William Schweller 2017, independent study project on lost Bowdoin paintings, 2017.


They also removed three other objectionable paintings: a small “Venus and Adonis,” a small “Lot and His Daughters,” and a large “Diana’s Discovery of Callisto,” all untraced as of 2021. Wegner, “Copies and Education,” 150.


The abridged Metamorphoses meant to prune out gross themes is discussed in Mark Morford, “Early American School Editions of Ovid” in The Classical Journal, vol. 78, No. 2 (Dec 1982–Jan 1983): 150–8.