A painted portrait of a well-dressed man with a dark black background.

An older portrait of James Bowdoin III. Gilbert Stuart, Portrait of James Bowdoin III, ca. 1806–1812, oil on canvas. Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Bequest of Mrs. Sarah Bowdoin Dearborn, 1870.6.

James Bowdoin III

Sean Burrus

Gilbert Stuart, Portrait of James Bowdoin III, ca. 1806–1812, oil on canvas. Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Bequest of Mrs. Sarah Bowdoin Dearborn, 1870.6.

The Museum’s core collection came from James Bowdoin III (1752–1811), who bequeathed over two hundred objects to the College—a sizeable collection during this era in the United States. Bowdoin’s bequest—which created one of the first public collections in the country—included 141 old master drawings and some six dozen paintings, many of which are inspired by antiquity. Bowdoin figured among a small group of leading figures—Thomas Jefferson being another—who recognized the value of art in fostering enlightened ideals and philosophical contemplation among a budding republic. Bowdoin’s life, travels, and collecting practices illustrate the trend among American elite society of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries towards classicism as an expression of taste and refinement. 

James Bowdoin III was the son of the wealthy merchant and second governor of Massachusetts, James Bowdoin II. Both father and son were prominent proponents of the American revolution in New England. On graduating from Harvard in 1771, Bowdoin III embarked on the first of several European travels made during his lifetime, studying at Oxford and making the traditional pilgrimage by elite youth through Europe known as the Grand Tour. In fact, Bowdoin and his companion, Nicholas Boylston, were among the first Americans to possess both the means and the motivation to take part in the Grand Tour tradition.

The genesis of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art can, in no small part, be traced to Bowdoin’s travels in England, France, and the Italian peninsula (from 1771–1773 and again from 1805–1808). During his travels, Bowdoin was exposed to ancient ruins, archaeological sites, European museums, and collections like those of Sir William Hamilton in Naples, who had recently independently published and then sold his collection of hundreds of Greek vases and bronzes to the British Museum. Boylston’s diary of his travels with Bowdoin confirms the sense of awe and wonder the pair felt in their exposure to such grand European collections and ancient Mediterranean sites like Vesuvius. Bowdoin’s encounters with art and antiquity in Europe dramatically shaped his tastes and his aspirations; it is perhaps no wonder that Bowdoin III felt the impulse to collect.

Portrait of a young James Bowdoin III wearting a blue suit, holding his finger in a book.

Unknown Artist, Portrait of James Bowdoin III, ca. 1771-1775, oil on canvas. Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Bequest of Mrs. Sarah Bowdoin Dearborn, 1826.1.

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The young Bowdoin’s means may have been decidedly more modest than those of the English gentry with whom he dined and visited during his Grand Tour, and we have no record that he acquired antiquities, which were probably prohibitively expensive to acquire and to ship across the Atlantic. But, having developed a keen interest in collecting and a passion for the past, Bowdoin found other ways to satisfy the acquisitive urge. During his Grand Tour, Bowdoin may have begun to acquire drawings by Old Masters, embarking a sustained project of collecting—then a rarity even among the elite class in the American colonies. Collecting drawings would become a lifelong pursuit and lead to the formation of a collection unique in its size and scope in early America. Bowdoin’s letters to his sister indicate that he also purchased several paintings while making the Grand Tour and had his portrait painted, a tradition among the English gentry and American travelers.

Gilbert Stuart, Portrait of Mrs. James Bowdoin III (née Sarah Bowdoin), ca 1805, oil on canvas. Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Bequest of Mrs. Sarah Bowdoin Dearborn, 1870.7.

After his Grand Tour, Bowdoin went on to form a sizeable collection of paintings, a pursuit he was joined in by his wife and partner Sarah Dearborn Bowdoin, who travelled with Bowdoin during his time as an American diplomat in Paris and was an informed patron of European art and culture. Bowdoin also continued collecting drawings in Europe and in America, buying, for example, from the estate of Boston-based painter John Smibert (1688–1751), and to amass a large library, including volumes on ancient art and architecture by the French archaeologist Alexandre Lenoir (1761–1839) and by Scottish classicist Alexander Adam (1741–1809). By the time of its donation to the College, Bowdoin’s library amounted to over two thousand volumes.

The paintings that Bowdoin bequeathed to the College include both original oil paintings as well as copies after well-known works. They indicate a particular taste for paintings featuring grand narrative scenes of biblical and classical myth and legend. Artist John Smibert’s (1688–1751) copy of Nicholas Poussin’s (1594–1665) history painting The Continence of Scipio exemplifies the value attached to such paintings in early America, as well as the importance of ancient history and myth in the American cultural landscape. The painting tells the story of the Roman general Scipio, who, despite his fabled lasciviousness, returned a beautiful female captive to her fiancé rather than taking her for himself. Thus, the picture provides a lasting example of gracious leadership. 

Having emigrated in 1728, Smibert was the first academically trained painter to work in the Americas. From Europe, Smibert brought a collection of drawings, paintings, and casts of ancient sculptures—some of the earliest in America. In Smibert’s Boston studio, The Continence of Scipio would have served as an exemplar of the classical style for the next generation of American artists. In the early years of the College, this painting was likely used to instruct students academically, artistically, and morally.

Left, Gilbert Stuart, Portrait of Thomas Jefferson, ca. 1805–1807, oil on canvas. Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Bequest of the Honorable James Bowdoin III, 1813.55; right, Gilbert Stuart, Portrait of James Madison, ca. 1805–1807, oil on canvas. Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Bequest of the Honorable James Bowdoin III, 1813.54.

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The adoption of ancient motifs in the American portraits from the Bowdoin bequest illustrate another curious aspect of American classicism of the period. In Gilbert Stuart’s (1755–1828) presidential pendant paintings of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison for example, third and (future) fourth Presidents of the United States are shown against a vaguely classical backdrop, with ionic columns framing the pair. These architectural details allude to the classical foundations (or supports, as it were) of the new American republic and to the Republican values derived from Roman history that distinguished Jefferson and Madison as politicians. 

The backstory of the paintings is even more interesting: Bowdoin and Jefferson were personally acquainted, and Bowdoin greatly admired Jefferson’s republican principles and felt a kinship because of their mutual interest in art and culture. After Jefferson appointed him Minister Plenipotentiary to the Court of Spain, Bowdoin offered his services to acquire paintings and sculpture for the President while abroad. Indeed, shortly before his departure for Europe in 1805, Bowdoin presented to Jefferson a marble copy of an antique sculpture in the Vatican’s collection that he believed to represent the Egyptian queen Cleopatra (later identified as Ariadne).

The gift remains at Jefferson’s home, Monticello. In celebration of his appointment as Minister to Spain, Bowdoin commissioned Gilbert Stuart to paint the official likenesses of President Jefferson and his Secretary of State James Madison. In his portrait, Jefferson is shown against a classical backdrop with Ionic columns framing the composition. These architectural details allude to the classical foundations of the American project: the democratic ideals and republican political system that Jefferson and his peers derived largely from knowledge of Greek and Roman history. While the classical references in this painting are subtle, they are part of a trend in American portraiture of the nineteenth century to depict prominent Americans in classicizing modes

The seriousness of Bowdoin’s dedication to building a collection is illustrated by the diverse subjects and types of drawings and paintings bequeathed to the College, which include religious themes and classical myth, historical subjects, portraits, landscapes, and figure studies. Yet, for all their diversity, certain patterns of collecting emerge that illuminate Bowdoin’s tastes and, by extension, those of early American consumers of Mediterranean history and culture. The paintings and drawings that Bowdoin collected over a lifetime of European travel demonstrate how the culture and heritage of the Mediterranean world—not only of Greek and Roman antiquity, but also of the Biblical and Mesopotamian worlds—came to be aligned with “American” values.

Sean P. Burrus is Interim Curator and a Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art


On Bowdoin’s Grand Tour and its influence on his development as a collector, see Richard Saunders III, “James Bowdoin III (1752-1811)” in The Legacy of James Bowdoin III, (Brunskick, ME: The Bowdoin College Museum of Art, 1994), 1–32.