IV. 1870–1900

The Gilded Age and the American Renaissance (1870–1900) 

The Gilded Age represented America’s coming of age, not only on the world stage but in the development of fine arts and culture. During this period, America’s population more than doubled, transitioning from a largely rural to predominantly urban populace. Technological innovations such as electricity, plumbing, the telephone, and the automobile wrought major changes in lifestyle and mobility. The refinement of the steam engine made travel to and within Europe accessible to progressively more Americans. At the turn of the nineteenth century, Americans travelling to Europe numbered in the few thousands every year; at the height of the Gilded Age, nearly one hundred thousand Americans were annually making the trip. Tourism to the ancient sites of Europe and the Mediterranean, however, remained exclusive; only a fraction of Americans travelled on this prohibitively expensive voyage that far exceeded the annual income of all but the incredibly wealthy until well into the twentieth century.  

Much as the upheaval the Revolutionary War saw the birth of a nation, social changes in the wake of the Civil War ushered in a period of rebirth and reinvention. More and more Americans began to join the scores of authors and artists who had visited (and sometimes never left) France, Italy, Spain, and Greece. American tourists found both themselves and Europe changed, and the terms of the encounter shifted. Americans were newly wealthy and more confident of their own national identity, a hard-won outcome of the Civil War. They also encountered a Europe whose political institutions were tilting inexorably in favor of Republicanism, with new nation states founded in Italy (1870) and Germany (1871) as well as the fall of the Napoleon dynasty and the establishment of the French Third Republic (1870). The adventures of Americans in Europe during this period are captured in the writings of American authors like William Dean Howells’s (1837–1920) Italian Journeys (1867) and Roman Hours (1908) and Henry James (1837–1916), who, in dozens of novels written in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, chronicled the European experience of Americans, their passions and prejudices, and the spirit of the times. 

But Europe was not the only destination. Americans were increasingly adventurous, such as Mark Twain, whose expansive itinerary included not only France and Italy but also Morocco, Greece, Turkey, and Palestine. Travel into the eastern Mediterranean, to Asia minor and to the Ottoman lands of Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine, was a natural extension of earlier travels in Italy. For many Americans the ancient Greek and Roman histories and the biblical histories were a contiguous part of the same historical whole: the rich fabric of antiquity. Premonitions of this can be seen in the collecting habits of the earliest generations like James Bowdoin III (1752–1811) who looked with equal favor on scenes of classical myth and biblical lore.

At the same time, the classical curriculum was increasingly abandoned in favor of courses in “practical knowledge.” Colleges and universities across the country began offering alternative paths to degrees that did not require as much (or any) study of ancient Greek and Latin literature. In 1895, Bowdoin abandoned Greek as an admissions requirement (though it was not until 1943 that Latin was removed as a requirement for admission to the Bachelors of Arts degree program). No longer widely accepted as a prerequisite for a successful career, the study of ancient Mediterranean art and culture was increasingly professionalized and siloed as a discipline within the university. The emergence of classical archaeology and the study of ancient Mediterranean art and artifact as an academic discipline and companion to the study of texts emerged in the latter half of the nineteenth century. This is when the disciplines of art history and classical archaeology both came into their own as rigorous academic subjects, concerned with classifying, cataloguing, and periodizing artistic styles, trends, and evolutions.

While antiquity began to lose its foothold in academia, the public began to encounter the ancient Mediterranean more and more through art and artifacts: the domain of museums. It was the Gilded Age that gave rise to the American museums and institutions dedicated to the collecting and study of the ancient world. Most major American museums with global collections were established during this period including the founding of both the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1870—both of which emphasized the collecting of ancient Mediterranean antiquities in their earliest years. All were devoted to the telling of a certain linear narrative of art history, with high points in art achievement being located especially in Greece and Rome.


The Gilded Age in America saw the influx of antiquities from the Mediterranean and Middle East on unprecedented scale. As travel became cheaper, safer, and speedier, more and more upwardly mobile and increasingly global Americans flocked to Europe. They carried with them the curiosity for the past sparked by a growing industry of popular archaeological publications and ever-expanding museum displays. Their travels reinvented the Grand Tour of an earlier era as they visited museums and archaeological sites, acquiring souvenirs of their adventures, among them often a few small antiquities, such as a Greek figurine, an Egyptian shabti, or a Roman coin, which were available in markets, antiquarian stores, and archaeological sites. Mark Twain describes acquiring an Etruscan vase from a Pisan, accompanied by a story of its discovery in an ancient tomb. Some acquisitions were forgeries foisted on unwitting tourists, others were authentic but looted from illicit excavations. 

The five Assyrian reliefs sent to the college by Byron Henri Haskell in 1860 were joined by antiquities from across the ancient Mediterranean acquired by American travelers with connections to Maine and Bowdoin College. During this period, scores of antiquities were added to the collections in a series of significant gifts. The first of these arrived for the opening of the Museum’s new home, the Walker Art Building, and was the first painted Greek vase to enter the Museum’s collection. It is in the form of a nestoris, a two handled jar often with attached discs decorating the handles and an additional pair of horizontal handles on the body and attributed to the Primato Painter, one of the last Greek vase painters working in Lucania in Southern Italy in the last half of the fourth century BCE.

Alternate view of An ancient, ornately-decorated, two-handled, greek vase. The black background is decorated wth assorted brownish-orange floral motifs, male youths,satyrs and a winged figure on the base and neck.

Attributed to the Primato Painter, Nestoris (two-handled jar), Greek, ca. 350–325 BCE, terracotta, red-figure. Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Gift of the Misses Harriet Sarah and Mary Sophia Walker, 1893.1.

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The vase was purchased for the Museum by the Walker sisters, Harriet Sarah (1844–1898) and Mary Sophia (1839–1904), wealthy Massachusetts benefactors whose vision and generosity later resulted in the commission and design of the 1894 McKim, Mead, and White neoclassical Walker Art Building that today houses one of the largest antiquities collections on a college campus. Recognizing the need for art objects of exceptional quality for Bowdoin students to study, the sisters seeded the Museum collections with many important gifts, both from their own collections and newly acquired works. In selecting this vase, the sisters consulted with the American antiquarian and collector Edward Perry (E.P.) Warren (1860–1928), whom they knew through their Boston circles and who would later go on to donate much of his own collection to the Museum, including a significant and comprehensive collection of Greek vases. This early donation indicated the significance the Walker sisters—like most Americans of the late nineteenth century—attached to the study of original pieces of ancient Mediterranean art.

The sisters also donated a group of thirty-seven glass vessels on the completion of the Walker Art Building in 1894. They acquired the glass vessels from the Thomas B. Clarke Fine Arts gallery in New York City, testifying to the growing availability of ancient art and artifacts in America. They were reported to be from three sources: German excavations at Limassol in Cyprus in the 1880s, the excavations of Alessandro Palma di Cesnola, also on Cyprus, and from local (unexcavated) collections in and around the city of Tyre in Lebanon. As such, the Walker glass collection represents an excellent cross-section of ancient glass arts, particularly of Roman glass production in the eastern Mediterranean.

Assorted ancient glass vessels set out for display.

A selection from the thirty-seven Greek and Roman glass vessels donated by the Walker sisters upon the completion of the Walker Art Building in 1894.

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The 1898 gifts of George Warren Hammond (1833–1908) are equally indicative of the types of antiquities that entered American collections, private and public, through overseas tourist experiences. In 1897, Hammond became the first donor to expand the ancient collections since the Walker sisters, with his donation of over one hundred objects, most of which represented a curious cross-section of the ancient Mediterranean. These included Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Byzantine objects including lamps, figurines, funerary artifacts, coins, and glass. Especially notable are the Egyptian funerary objects he gifted to the College, including Ptolemaic mummy wrappings and several dozen faience shabtis. Hammond wrote that he was offering his collection in “the hope and expectation that they will be a nucleus that will induce others to send their collections, already made or to be made in the future, to Bowdoin College.” 

Hammond’s goal was fulfilled within the decade when Maine native Dana Estes (1840–1909) made the next major donation of antiquities to the BCMA collections. Estes was a founding partner of a prominent Boston bookseller and publishing house, Estes & Lauriat (est. 1872), which later operated as Dana Estes & Co. (1898–1909). Estes is known to have travelled widely, including trips to Asia, Africa, and Europe. As a bookseller, though, his most frequent stop was London on the hunt for European titles to import for his American customers. As the success of his firm grew, Estes likely pursued Mediterranean antiquities and European art as a mark of his education and sophistication, important traits in the publishing world. Like E.P. Warren, Estes was also a benefactor to institutions beyond Bowdoin, including the Peabody Museum at Harvard.

Circular terracotta lamp with gladiatorial weapons carved in a circle on its surface.

Lamp with gladiatorial weapons, Cypriot, Cyprus, ca. 40–80 CE, terracotta, mold-made and red-slipped. Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. Dana C. Estes, Honorary Degree 1898, 1902.6.

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Four sculptural fragments including a mummy mask and three panels with intricate carvings and patterns in gold leaf.

Mummy mask and panels, Egyptian, ca. 4th–2nd c. BCE, cartonnage (linen, papyrus, resin adhesive, plaster) with gold leaf, paint. Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Gift of George Warren Hammond, Honorary Degree 1900, and Mrs. Hammond, 1898.42.1-.4.

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Many—perhaps all—of the antiquities owned by Estes and gifted to the Bowdoin College Museum of Art were once part of the Lawrence-Cesnola collection. This collection grew out of finds from the late nineteenth century excavations of Alessandro Palma di Cesnola (1839–1914), amateur archaeologist, Sardinian-American diplomat, and younger brother of Luigi Palma di Cesnola (1832–1904), the famous first director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Many of Alessandro’s finds went originally to his father-in-law, E. H. Lawrence, a London stockbroker who financed Alessandro’s excavations. In turn, Lawrence sold off much of the Lawrence-Cesnola collection in a series of London sales between 1883 and 1892. While it remains uncertain, Dana Estes likely attended one or more of the sales of the Lawrence-Cesnola Collections during his travels to London.

The Lawrence-Cesnola excavations brought the ancient history of Cyprus to the world’s attention. Both men were itinerant soldiers and later served as diplomats for the United States in Cyprus. They were also amateur archaeologists whose excavations at several important sites in Cyprus uncovered tens of thousands of ancient artifacts, many of which found their way to American and European museums. The questionable nature of the brothers’ activities came under criticism in their own day, as it has in ours; their excavations were often unpermitted, either by Ottoman or later British authorities, and in 1878 Alessandro was tried and convicted in British court of violating a ban on excavations.

The large arch fills the left side of this engraving, with small figures around its base. Two trees twist around each other on the right.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Arch of Titus, 1720–1778, engraving. Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Bequest of Charles Potter Kling, 1935.353.

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In addition to acquiring artifacts, Americans continued to commission portraits and American likenesses with ancient accoutrements and allusions. For example, American painter George Peter Healy (1813–1894) painted a portrait of writer Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882), Class of 1825, and his daughter Edith beneath the Arch of Titus in Rome. In this single, giant canvas, Healy brings together two of the most familiar tourist sites of Rome to commemorate the Longfellow’s European tour. Dwarfed by its size, the famous author and his daughter stroll leisurely below the Arch, one of the most famous monuments in Rome, with the equally famed Colosseum in the background. Despite the allusion to plein air painting found in the group of artists in the foreground—long identified as Healy with his fellow American painters Frederic Church (1826–1900) and Jervis McEntee (1828–1891)—this is a carefully executed studio piece. During their time in Rome, the Longfellows visited Healy’s studio where the artist had a photograph taken of the author and his daughter that served as the basis of their likeness. In its innovative approach to its dual subjects—the famed author and the eternal city—the work is truly one of Healy’s masterpieces and a testament to the enduring and ever evolving relationship between Americans and antiquity. 

Painting of a woman with auburn hair and wearing a cerulean blue toga sits by the water and plays a lyre. Oceanside cliffs decorate the background.

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Portrait of Caroline Sanders Truax (Mrs. Charles H. Truax) as Sappho, 1899, oil on linen. Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Gift of Carolyn Aldrich Frost (Mrs. Truax’s granddaughter) and Hunter S. Frost ’47, 2000.10.

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In another exemplary portrait from the era, French painter Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904) depicted New Yorker Caroline Sanders Truax (1870–1940) in the guise of the Greek lyric poet Sappho. Captured in the act of composing verse, she holds a kithara (a type of lyre) on her lap while several sheafs of paper with verse are on the rock to her right, bearing a fragmentary verse from the ancient poet. One of the first female lawyers in the state of New York and an early graduate of the Woman’s Law Class of the New York University Law School, Truax was a life-long supporter of the arts. In 1896, she married Charles H. Truax, a New York State Supreme Court Justice, and the two visited Gérôme’s Paris studio shortly after their marriage, possibly on their honeymoon. By this time, Gérôme had established himself as the preeminent academic painter of the period and was recognized for his orientalizing and classicizing scenes. Mrs. Truax, fluent in French and a poet herself, charmed the artist, inspiring him to paint her portrait and present it to her as a gift. 

The portrait made a splash in New York society when it arrived in America and appeared in several exhibitions. Sappho, a popular poet of Archaic Greece from the island of Lesbos, was a bold choice for a nineteenth century portrait. Though she achieved legendary status, little survives of her poetry and much of what is known about her life is subject to debate. By the nineteenth century, the nature of her poetry, and particularly its celebration of womanhood and homoeroticism, made her a controversial figure. She has been widely adopted as a symbol of lesbian sexuality (the term “sapphic” derives from her name, and lesbian refers to her birthplace of Lesbos) and a feminist icon. In an especially mysterious note, a figure falling from the cliff behind the sitter alludes to a legend that Sappho died by suicide in this way, a victim of unrequited love for a ferryman named Phaon. While the legend is almost certainly not true, it captured the imagination of ancient and modern artists, including Gérôme.


During the Gilded Age, a new class of American collectors and connoisseurs of fine arts emerged whose dedication and seriousness set them apart in a class of their own. Newfound purchasing power allowed these Americans to compete, for the first time, with old European money and in European markets for the consumption of European art and culture, including Mediterranean antiquities. It was this industrialist set who pursued and consumed the classical world most passionately as American fortunes and global connections increased; they pursued it, however, through means better suited to their skills and in harmony with their mercantilist pursuits. The acquisition of Mediterranean objects began to supersede the pursuit of Mediterranean knowledge. 

As the torch passed from Europe to America, from aristocracy to plutocrats, so too did objects of art and culture. Americans saw themselves as the new Medici, modern businessmen whose wealth enabled the pursuit of culture, and collections. The merchant princes of the Gilded Age rapaciously bought up the treasures of European nobility in decline. They sought to demonstrate their sophistication and appreciation for the arts by building their own “palazzos,” sometimes on models of Italian renaissance, and filling them with works of art including antiquities, Old Master paintings, and European sculptures, often collected during travels in Europe. European estates and manor homes were plundered by American collectors and architects for the furnishing of American homes and institutions. Stanford White wrote defensively: “In the past, dominant nations had always plundered works of art from their predecessors; […] America was taking a leading place among nations and had, therefore, the right to obtain art wherever she could.” 

In the same period a new class of American collectors and connoisseurs of fine arts emerged whose dedication and seriousness set them apart. Their ranks include the likes of Isabella Stewart Gardner, J.P. Morgan, Phoebe Hearst, and E.P. Warren. Some, like Gardner or Morgan, dabbled in antiquities, while focusing their main efforts on other areas of collection like Renaissance paintings. Others, like Warren, reserved their energies primarily for pursuing antiquities. 

As one of the earliest and most significant American collectors of Mediterranean antiquities, Warren’s story is at once unique and uniquely illustrative of the trends in the Gilded Age that announced America’s arrival on the world stage and the arrival en masse of Mediterranean art and artifacts in America. Warren was one of the chief figures in the antiquities trade in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century as the purchasing agent for the MFA, Boston, where he established himself as a connoisseur of impeccable taste and discerning knowledge. He was renowned—and feared—for his dogged pursuit of Greek and Roman antiquities, especially Greek vases and marbles, and Greek and Roman jewelry, gems, and cameos. For Warren—as for so many other admirers and collectors of the ancient past of the period—the ancient world was a refuge to the ills of modern society undergoing rapid industrial and technological shifts.

From a young age, Warren never felt so at home as he did during his family’s European travels. He fled Harvard for Oxford in 1883, and there immersed himself in classical art and literature. Staying on in Europe after his time at Oxford, Warren established himself at a country home in Lewes and travelled the continent regularly, scouring galleries and auctions. Along with a network of agents, dealers, and excavators—combined with his own wealth and the purchasing power of the newly established MFA in Boston—Warren had fairly cornered the antiquities market in Europe.

Kylix (cup), Etruscan, ca. 525 BCE, terracotta, red-figure. Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Gift of Edward Perry Warren, Esq., Honorary Degree 1926, 1913.2.

Warren increasingly immersed himself in a reality of his own making, one that was culturally and geographically at a remove from his native Boston. By collecting both friends (a coterie of aesthetes that would become known as Lewes House Brotherhood) and objects that matched Warren’s decidedly Hellenocentric values, he actively resisted the predominant forces of American culture: industry, technology, money-making, and, more generally, the values associated with the Protestant roots of New England. In a letter to Bowdoin Museum of Art director Professor Henry Johnson (1855–1918), Warren wrote:

“Art is inevitably for the few, and a museum is a light-house to rescue these from unhappiness. It is a traitor to the modern cause lodged amid utilities for the succor of renegades. Hope of a better future lies in these records and protests of the past…”  

White marble portrait head of a man with short curly hair and a beard, mounted on a black base. The nose is partially broken off.

Portrait head of Emperor Antoninus Pius, Roman, ca. 138–150 CE, Parian marble. Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Gift of Edward Perry Warren, Esq., Honorary Degree 1926, 1906.1.

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One can imagine that Warren saw an opportunity to encourage a Bowdoin education that resembled Oxford, where young men bonded through their shared immersion in the ancient world and developed an aesthetic appreciation for the arts (quite unlike the curriculum of Harvard, where, albeit classically grounded, the study of the ancient world was of a more practical nature). For this reason, it is appropriate to single out the Greek vases donated by Warren as representative of his collecting ethos and his mission to shape the values and education of young Americans. As objects for contemplation, it can be argued that Greek vases are first among Classical art in rewarding the type of slow looking that “delights the eye and rests the soul.” An ancient marriage of form and function, they can be appreciated for their figurative and narrative scenes that capture ancient myth, history, and culture in instructive ways, for the variety and fineness of their forms and the complex technologies of their production. Warren’s formation of a corpus of Greek vases for a college like Bowdoin illuminates the shifts from text to artifact that increasingly characterized the encounter with the Mediterranean past in the Gilded Age.

American Arts

If American attitudes towards Europe were emboldened anew in the Gilded Age, so to were attitudes towards the past. As America exited the strife of the Civil War and gained new wealth and influence, it sought to redefine itself and to shake off its reputation of as an arcadian frontier—possessed of abundant natural resources but primitive culture. In the midst of this cultural rebirth, American authors, artists, and architects reinvented American culture by identifying as the new heirs of the same Greek and Roman pasts that had inspired the Renaissance in Europe. Where Americans of the Revolutionary period sought to found a new Roman Republic, during the Gilded Age references increasingly turned to a “new Athens” as Classical Greece was regarded as the pinnacle of achievement in the arts and culture.

Randolph Rogers, The Lost Pleiad, 1874–1875, white marble on base of dark, veined marble. Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Bequest of Mrs. Galen C. Moses, 1933.9.

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The American Renaissance signaled a high-water mark of classicism in the arts. While neoclassicism was on the wane, in favor of movements like realism and impressionism that would eventually give birth to modern art, the romantic engagement with the ancient past and the torch of neoclassicism was continued by American artists like Randolph Rogers (1825–1892). Rogers opened his studio in Rome in 1851 and from there gained acclaim among a wealthy and growing American clientele at home and abroad, especially during the Gilded Age. Sculpted between 1874 and 1875, The Lost Pleiad is Rogers’s last work of ideal sculpture and regarded as his final masterpiece. It is based on a myth preserved in the Fasti, a poem by the ancient Roman poet Ovid, which describes the origins of holidays marked on the Roman calendar. Ovid describes how the Merope (the “lost Pleiad”) loses her place among her six sister stars in the constellation after marrying a mortal, a common trope in ancient myth. Rogers’s depiction captures Merope searching for her celestial home, indicated by the clouds gathering at her feet, and reveals the sculptor at the height of his talents. Like many of Rogers’s works, The Lost Pleiad was wildly popular and demand for copies was high. Following the modeling and completion of the original sculpture, more than one hundred copies were requested, revealing growing American taste for neoclassical sculptures and home furnishings. 

Rogers first found success with his sculpture of Nydia, the Blind Flower Girl of Pompeii (1853–1854), which was based on a central and tragic figure from the popular novel The Last Days of Pompeii (1834) by the British author Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803–1873). The novel was a bestseller in America and remained a touchstone when Rogers carved his Nydia, which was reproduced over seventy times. His fame would bring him major commissions for public monuments across the US which, to greater or lesser extent, draw on motifs, poses, and tropes developed in ancient sculpture. Surrounded by Roman ruins and ancient sculptures, Rogers’s practice of embedding echoes of the past in his art is in line with that of other American sculptors working in Rome, such as Edmonia Lewis (1845–after 1911), Hiram Powers (1805–1873), Thomas Crawford (1814–1857), and Harriet Hosmer (1830–1908).

Where these American sculptors carried on neoclassical traditions in marble and bronze, American painters remained taken with ancient history and with the allure of ancient ruins. George Loring Brown’s (1814–1889) Sunset, View of Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples painted in 1864 is exemplary of the tastes of American artists and patrons in the latter half of the nineteenth century. A Boston born landscape painter, Brown spent the formative years of his career in Italy where he painted views for the booming tourist market—especially for fellow Americans.

Landscape painting with ruins in its dark foreground extends back to a bright body of water and a mountain range on the horizon.

George Loring Brown, Sunset, View of Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples, 1864, oil on canvas. Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Bequest of Joseph Edward Merrill, Class of 1854, 1909.1.

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Brown’s expansive painting combines the modern city of Naples (left) with ancient ruins, including Virgil’s tomb, a Roman cinerarium and a familiar pilgrimage site since the Renaissance. At the rear, looming over all, is a smoldering Mount Vesuvius, a reminder of the eruption that served as a signal event of Roman antiquity representing the precarious balance of human industry and nature. The setting sun introduces a note of melancholy, not unlike Thomas Cole’s (1801–1848) The Course of Empire, which had similarly used the crumbling remains of Mediterranean antiquity as a metaphor for the trials and tribulations of human experience.  

Brown’s Italian landscapes—including scenes of Rome, Florence, Venice and, here, Naples—were popular among contemporary American collectors. His studio in Rome became one of the most important stops for American travelers, including author Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864), Class of 1825, who wrote about his visit with Brown in 1858, noting that Brown’s “Yankee idioms” and “lack of grace” signaled an artist “quite unpolished by his many years residence in Italy.” Despite this rather unflattering depiction, Hawthorne wrote admiringly of Brown’s works and the particular quality of light captured within. 

Of Brown’s surviving paintings, the Bowdoin example is one of only two that depict panoramic vistas of the Bay of Naples. Brown, like many of his contemporaries, returned to the United States on the eve of the Civil War. There he continued to paint Italian views such as this one, using sketches and watercolors done during his years abroad. While he also branched out into landscapes of rural New England with some success, his Italianate scenes remained his most recognized and desirable works.

The American Renaissance at Bowdoin College

The American Renaissance also impacted architecture. Classical references continued to be deeply embedded, though other references from the ancient world, especially Egyptian and Assyrian motifs, also influenced design. Senator James McMillan, writing at the turn of the twentieth century, noted that “It is the general opinion that for monumental work, Greece and Rome furnish the styles of architecture best adapted to serve the manifold wants of today, not only as to beauty and dignity, but as to utility.”

Bowdoin’s growing collection culminated in the construction of the Walker Art Building in 1894. BCMA’s magnificent neoclassical home was commissioned by the aforementioned Mary Sophia and Harriet Sarah Walker, in honor of their uncle, Theophilus Wheeler Walker (1813–1890), an early supporter of the arts at Bowdoin. Befitting one of the oldest college collections in the country, the Walker Art Building was one of the first art museum buildings on an American college campus, preceded only by Yale’s Street Hall (1868) and the Princeton Fine Art Museum (1888).

The sisters envisioned a building devoted “solely to art purposes,” and their selection of the architectural firm McKim, Mead, and White, along with their deep involvement with every aspect of the building’s design helped make the project a success. Charles McKim (1847–1909), who was responsible for the Walker Art Building’s design, was trained at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris before founding the firm in New York in 1877. By the time the Walker sisters commissioned the firm in 1891, it was already recognized as one of the country’s leading architectural firms and among the greatest proponents of the American Beaux-Arts style. 

At the time of the design and completion of the Walker Art Building, architecture was understood as the highest expression of American Renaissance aesthetic ideals. Numerous models have been proposed as inspiration for McKim’s design, all of which derive from the Italian renaissance. In plan, the building is laid out as a Greek cross, originally with three galleries arranged around a central domed sculpture hall. This plan finds its closest renaissance models in the Pazzi Chapel in Florence, designed by renowned architect Brunelleschi. The eastern facade of the Walker Art Building is marked by a central loggia approached by a wide staircase. The loggia, through which the galleries were entered, is announced by three arches atop ionic columns, and its interior was originally painted in a style reminiscent of Pompeii frescoes. On either side of the loggia are niches that hold the bronze statues of the orator Demosthenes and the tragedian Sophocles, the latter whose writings would have been studied by Bowdoin students. Both statues are copies after ancient marbles, which were ordered from the Neapolitan workshop of Sabatino de Angelis (1838–?) on the suggestion of McKim; however, the inspiration for the pairing may likely be traced to the Boston Athenaeum, where plaster casts of the same sculptures had been displayed as a pair since 1858. In a register above the loggia are busts of Hermes, Dionysus, and Homer, each also copied after ancient sculptures, as well as a pair of tablets bearing the names of major figures in art history. A compendium of ancient and Italian Renaissance artists’ and architects’ names are listed as a testament to the central role of ancient art in the American Renaissance.

Interior view of Walker Art Building’s sculpture hall, ca. 1900-1930. Courtesy of the George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives, Bowdoin College Library, Brunswick, Maine, Local Call Number 3013.

As the first space visitors encountered, the Museum’s rotunda sculpture gallery was, for many decades, home to the collection of plaster casts copied from ancient models. Inspired by Roman antiquity and the model of the Parthenon, the gallery’s design was understood during this period as the optimal design for the display of sculptures. It is not clear when the first casts were acquired by the College, but photographs of the Chapel galleries show that casts representing some of the most famous Greek and Roman sculptures were already well represented. These include a reduced Laocoön group and Venus de Milo, as well as full scale casts of the Dying Gaul, Diana of Versailles, Augustus Prima Porta, and the Apollo Belvedere. Bowdoin would continue to grow its cast collection well into the twentieth century, with the latest additions being a group of plaster casts gifted to the Museum by Professor Henry Johnson in 1914. Few of these casts remain at the College today, and details of their dispersal have not been uncovered, though cast collections were routinely deaccessioned across the country in the mid-twentieth century and often given to local schools and libraries. Of the plaster casts in the Chapel installation image, only the Venus de Milo remains on campus, having taken up residency in the Edwards Visual Arts Center where students to this day use it as a model, learning from antiquity as artists have for centuries before them.

The rotunda gallery was completed by four mural paintings that filled the large lunettes above each gallery entrance as well as the main entry. During this period in American art history, mural painting was a major and important form of artistic output, and over four hundred public buildings featured murals throughout the gilded age. The Walker murals were commissioned by McKim and the Walker sisters by four of the country’s leading painters: Elihu Vedder (1836–1923), John La Farge (1835–1910), Abbott Thayer (1849–1921), and Kenyon Cox (1856–1919). Each had travelled extensively and trained in Europe, especially Paris and Italy. These travels along with the influence of the European renaissance and the ancient Mediterranean past were embedded in the choice of subject matter, which prioritized allegorical treatments of the four major cities then understood as fundamental in the evolution of (Western) art history: Athens (La Farge), Rome (Vedder), Florence (Thayer), and Venice (Cox). As framing devices for the galleries, the paintings have shaped the way in which art history is taught and received at the Museum for generations. The privileged position of Greece and Rome in this hierarchy is signaled not only in their placement in the building but also in their assignment to the two most senior and prominent artists, La Farge and Vedder respectively.

Half-circle painting of a nude woman flanked by two winged women who draw nearby figures. Surrounded by an ornately carved gold frame.

Elihu Vedder, Rome (The Art Idea), 1894, oil on canvas. Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Gift of the Misses Harriet Sarah and Mary Sophia Walker, 1893.37.

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Vedder’s mural, the first to be commissioned, is also the first work encountered upon entering the Museum. While ostensibly depicting Rome, the work figures an allegory of its alternate title “The Art Idea.” The painting, it has been argued, encapsulates “the philosophical premise of the entire American Renaissance.” The visual language of the piece is steeped in “solemnly classical” reference to the ancient world, with its allegorical figures and erotes.  The personification of Nature—the source of all art—stands at the center of the composition, her pose lifted from classical statuary and her figure bracketed by the Greek letters alpha and omega she holds, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet signaling the all-encompassing nature of the mural. The groupings to the left and right could be renaissance sculptures or paintings; in their carefully and symmetrically balanced design, they form the essential building blocks of knowledge and art. Embedded in these groupings are also references to the work of Michelangelo and Raphael, central figures in the art history of Renaissance-era Rome. It is fitting that Vedder’s mural is also the one most steeped in classical reference and refined classicizing style; of the four artists, Vedder had the longest residence in Rome and the most exposure to its antiquities. 

Of the remaining murals, each demonstrates qualities of the American Renaissance taste and the appreciation of ancient and Renaissance art history to varying degrees. In La Farge’s Athens situated opposite Vedder’s Rome—the goddess Athena, patron of Athens and associated with the arts and wisdom, draws a personified Nature from life while a personification of the city of Athens looks on. While the figures of Athens are all more immediately ancient in their guise and dress, La Farge painted them in a style that is more naturalistic and less classicizing and formal than Vedder’s figures. Their poses are only loosely drawn from ancient (or Renaissance) models; Athena’s garb is easily recognized from the repertoire of Greek and Roman statuary of the goddess, while Nature’s contrapposto pose and semi nudity vaguely recalls depictions of Venus, particularly the Venus de Milo in the Louvre. The Tyche of Antioch, an ancient Greek sculpture, may similarly serve as a model for the seated personification of the city. The environs render the scene specific to Athens and include a Doric capital, a herm, and a relief carving of an owl—symbol of the city and companion to Athena. Of note, one of La Farge’s models for the painting was Hettie Anderson (1873–1938), a Black model who worked with many of the leading artists of the day, including Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848–1907) and Daniel Chester French (1850–1931). Like so many other Black Americans of the period who served as models and muses to American artists , Anderson’s identity as a Black woman was erased in every existing composition of her. 

For generations of Bowdoin students, the Museum’s architectural and decorative scheme have shaped a first impression and encounter with art history steeped in reference to the ancient past. The Walker sisters were deeply involved throughout the design and construction process, consulting with McKim on every aspect and approving all final details, from the sculptures of the façade to provisions for the hanging of paintings inside. Throughout, they remained steadfast in their commitment to creating a building dedicated “exclusively for art purposes”—a phrase enshrined in the deed of gift and in a bronze plaque in the floor of the building’s rotunda.


 On the development of American travel and tourism to Europe over the 19th century, see Daniel Kilbride, Being American in Europe, 1750-1860 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 2013).


"The American Renaissance: 1876-1917," ed. The Brooklyn Museum (New York: Pantheon Books, 1979). See also H. Barbara Weinberg, "American “High Renaissance: Bowdoin’s Walker Art Building and Its Murals," in The Italian Presence in American Art, ed. Irma B. Jaffe (New York: Fordham University, 1992).


Correspondence from E. P. Warren to Henry Johnson, 19 January 1916, call number A05.02.01, Box 1, Folder 9, George J. Mitchell Dept. of Special Collections & Archives, Bowdoin College Library, Brunswick, Maine. The cynical reference to rats and snails and puppy dog’s tails is an allusion to Warren’s unhappy childhood and adolescence in which he felt alienated from his Boston peers, and the “Puritan” ethics that governed Bostonian boyhood.


On the founding of the American Academy in Rome – The North American Review, 174 (May 1902) p. 627.


Weinberg, "American “High Renaissance: Bowdoin’s Walker Art Building and Its Murals."


See Eileen Sinnott Pols, "The Walker Art Building 1894: Charles F. Mckim’s First Museum Design" (M.A. Thesis University of Texas at Austin, 1985), 83.


"The American Renaissance: 1876-1917," 181.


"The American Renaissance: 1876-1917," 187.


See Weinberg, "American “High Renaissance: Bowdoin’s Walker Art Building and Its Murals."


See, for example, the recent exhibition Boston’s Apollo at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (2021) which dealt with Thomas McKeller and his relationship to the artist John Singer Sargent (1856–1925). 


For a detailed account of the involvement of the Walker sisters throughout the process, see Pols, "The Walker Art Building 1894: Charles F. Mckim’s First Museum Design."

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