I. Introduction

Inventing ‘Antiquity’ in America: The Ancient Mediterranean World in American Culture 

The ancient world of the Mediterranean has loomed large in the American imagination for centuries. Antiquity, and especially the cultures of the Greeks and Romans, has exerted a tremendous impact on the culture of the United States, profoundly shaping its arts, politics, and national identity. From the nation’s public monuments to home design and domestic interiors, the influence of antiquity on American taste and culture is enduring and inescapable. 

Antiquity & America: The Ancient Mediterranean in the United States considers the imprint of the ancient world on the United States, using the history and collections of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art as a window into three centuries of American fascination with the ancient world. Through the exploration of early encounters with antiquities, the act of collecting, and the influence on American art, the exhibition tells a wide-ranging story that reaches deep into the heart and history of the United States, revealing how antiquity has shaped our search for a national identity and our place in history at pivotal moments of national birth and rebirth.

The Bowdoin Collections

Founded in 1794, not long after the United States achieved independence, Bowdoin College reflects enlightenment ideals that interconnect education and democratic principles and that place a premium on familiarity with the past. The arts played key role at the College from its earliest days, with the campus hosting one of the nation’s first public collections of art. This collection was formed in 1811 with the bequest of James Bowdoin III, who gifted to the College bearing his family’s name a collection of some six dozen European and American paintings and a group of 150 drawings—at the time one of the finest art collections in the country. While Bowdoin’s collection contained no antiquities—authentic ancient art and artifacts were almost unknown in America at this time—the varied subjects of the artworks evince a reverence for the ancient world and for scenes of Greek and Roman myth and history. Bowdoin’s collection is a testament to the classicizing tastes of Americans that endured for centuries and encompassed not only America’s elite but cut across all strata of American society. 

Today the Bowdoin College Museum of Art’s collection of nearly two thousand antiquities spans the ancient world from Italy to Iraq and chronicles some four thousand years of human history and culture. The collection ranks among the most prominent collegiate and regional collections and neatly parallels the broader phenomenon of American interest in antiquity and its arts, serving as a remarkable bellwether for the evolving taste and motivation behind American collecting of antiquities. Antiquity & America highlights more than one hundred of Bowdoin’s most remarkable examples of art from across the ancient world, from the civilizations of the Egyptians, Assyrians, Greeks, and Romans and encompassing marble and bronze sculpture and figurines, Greek painted vases, Roman glass, numismatics, and many other categories of ancient art and artifacts.   

Along with ancient artifacts, Antiquity & America explores the stories of their American collectors, whose activities are intertwined with the development of the Bowdoin collection. From early collectors like James Bowdoin III, an antiquarian collector and early supporter of the fine arts in America, to Edward Perry Warren, the Gilded Age antiquities collector and purchasing agent for the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the individuals who formed Bowdoin’s collections parallel a larger story behind antiquities collecting in the United States. The exhibition explores the ways they collected and conceived of the ancient world, shedding light on the evolving role of ancient art and artifact in American conceptions of the past.

Antiquities & America also seeks to contextualize these collectors within the cultural landscape that shaped their activities and which, in many cases, they hoped to shape. To better understand this historical moment, the exhibition considers the influence of antiquity on American artists who both looked to ancient examples for instruction and creatively conceived of the ancient world as a way to comment on America. American artists played a remarkable role in the creation and consumption of antiquity that was part and parcel of the creation of America.

The exhibition explores these aspects—antiquities, American collectors, and American artists—through three periods of United States history. During the late Colonial and early American periods (ca. 1750–1812), authentic antiquities were few and far between in the United States, and Americans encountered antiquity first and foremost through reproductions and recreations in prints, plasters, and paintings. In the formative years between the war of 1812 and the Civil War, the United States took its first tentative steps on the world stage, and antiquities began arriving in America through the efforts of American diplomats, missionaries, and military men. Lastly, the American prosperity and technological advances of the Gilded Age ushered in a new era of American encounters with the ancient world both at home, through the formation of major private and public antiquities collections, and abroad, through increased tourism and travel.

The American Cultural Landscape

Our story concludes with a consideration of the role of antiquity in contemporary American culture as well as the concerns related to cultural heritage and collecting antiquities in the modern era. Through examining the diverse impulses that drove American fascination with the ancient world over three centuries, this exhibition provides new insight on both the way American collectors and artists have shaped the ancient world in the American imagination and how antiquity has figured prominently in our collective search for a national identity. 

Throughout the history of the United States, the ancient world has played a critical role in the creation of a national myth, origin story, and language of identity. Though the Greeks and Romans took on a prominent role and the early American republic was often cast as a new Rome, Egyptians, Carthaginians, and Israelite tribes of the Eastern Mediterranean, among others, also figured in American self-narratives. For some, America figured as a new Jerusalem (drawing on biblical references). Other comparisons were drawn too—more often in a negative light—against past and present cultures of the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, in ways that often took on racial undertones

The most frequently told story about American classicism focuses on its development in a white, elite, and particularly male culture, serving as an early example of how the taste and preferences of white males have dominated the discourse of this country for centuries. This incomplete story leaves unexplored the way that the ancient world cut across strata of American society. Americans of all races and socio-economic classes participated in the culture of classicism—including enslaved and free Black Americans, Native Americans, and men and women of all classes—albeit often under markedly different circumstances and to different ends. While often hidden and historically underrepresented, the experiences of non-elite, non-male, and non-Euro American individuals are woven throughout antiquity in America. In the context of Bowdoin’s history and collection, this exhibition seeks to critically investigate these untold stories and explore how cultural classicism transcended class, race, and gender, well into the twentieth century.

It is equally important to acknowledge that America has its own antiquity, but that past, not unlike the land itself, was not the property of white European settlers and colonists. Instead, those colonizers grafted the ancient Mediterranean onto America, pairing it with other elements of European politics, history, and culture. Over the centuries this invented history of America as the heir to the civilizations of the ancient Mediterranean—particularly Greece and Rome—became commonplace; it was embedded in curricula, public and private architecture, and art and literature. Uncovering this deep-seated history, particularly its manifestation in the arts and architecture of the United States, is at the core of Antiquity & America.

II. 1750–1812

Classicism and Popular Culture in the early American Republic