Edward Waldo Forbes, former director of the Fogg Museum (1909–1944) and a pioneer in art conservation, was never formally trained as an art historian. Yet his study alongside artists and experts in England and Italy provided a valuable education, inspiring not only the courses he taught at Harvard but also the Fogg’s teaching mission and its leading role in art conservation.
Forbes’s commitment to close study and research endures today at the Harvard Art Museums. To learn more about his work and travels, visitors can make an appointment at the Harvard Art Museums Archives, where the newly processed Forbes Teaching and Research Materials Collection and Forbes’s unpublished memoir, “Art Notes,” are available for research purposes.
Below, you’ll find several sets of images and related documents that help tell the story of Forbes's early collecting practices and his education about Italian painting.
Soon after graduating from Harvard in 1895, Forbes began collecting art. His first acquisitions aligned with the taste of his upper-class family in Boston, who included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Forbes’s grandfather. He purchased two pieces at auction from the estate of Boston’s William Morris Hunt, one of his grandmother’s favorite artists: The Gypsies’ Parlor (above) and a study for The Bugle Call. Afterward, as Forbes details in his draft of “Art Notes,” seen above, he “was fairly launched as a collector.” The works hung at his home at Gerry’s Landing (located about one mile west of the Harvard campus) and in the Harvard Faculty Club. Both are now part of the Harvard Art Museums collections.
A few years later, while traveling in Florence, Forbes wondered why he rarely saw early Italian paintings in museums or private collections in the United States, unaware at the time of the James Jackson Jarves Collection at Yale and Isabella Stewart Gardner’s collection in Boston. He sought the advice of an acquaintance from Harvard, archaeologist and art historian Richard Norton, son of Charles Eliot Norton (the first art history professor in the United States and one of Forbes’s professors at Harvard). “They are here and some are for sale,” Norton replied. “You have only to buy them.” And so, with the help of Norton’s trained eye, Forbes set out to collect with purpose. As the years went on, Norton offered to purchase works on behalf of Forbes.
Because the two were rarely in the same place at the same time, they used code words to efficiently communicate how aggressively Norton should pursue a work, if at all. According to Forbes’s notes on these codes, seen above, he could telegraph “Wasp Foligno ten” to indicate to Norton to “buy Foligno at or under ten thousand lira; but if it seems to you that it is a very fine thing buy it at any reasonable cost.” The Madonna and Child with Saints Nicholas of Tolentino, Monica, Augustine, and John the Evangelist in the museums’ collections is just one result of their joint effort.
In a passage from his “Art Notes,” seen above, Forbes wrote about his collecting expenditures: “I lived at home with my Mother when I was not travelling, so my expenses were small.” One major drawback of this living situation, however, is that Forbes had nowhere to store his art. Norton had a savvy solution: he could deposit objects on indefinite loan at the Fogg. Ironically, as Forbes wrote, he “had never been inside the Fogg Museum.” One such early deposit was Sarcophagus Sections with Men Fighting Amazons.
Forbes’s travels in Italy introduced him to aspects of the art world he’d never considered, including conservation. In the early 1900s, “I somehow stumbled into my special field,” he wrote, recalling seeing many works in disrepair, sometimes exacerbated by inexpert restoration efforts. Forbes believed he needed to understand artists’ materials and techniques to successfully conserve them. Norton pointed him in the right direction: towards the London studio of art dealer, collector, and artist C. Fairfax Murray, who taught Forbes to replicate the technique of Venetian painters.
Murray frequently chastised Forbes for poor draftsmanship, but the notes Forbes took influenced his later lectures (documented above). Forbes gave the paintings he and Murray created, such as Portrait of a Man, to the Harvard Art Museums to be used for teaching after he retired from the Fogg.
Murray recommended Forbes continue his education in Venice with a man called Signor Desideri. Desideri was an expert in tempera painting, which would eventually become the basis of Forbes’s signature course Methods and Processes of Italian Painting, known to students as the Egg and Plaster Course. According to the page from “Art Notes” seen above, Forbes encountered the unassuming signor by chance at his day job at a local post office. By his own admission, Forbes hadn’t progressed much as an artist since his time with Murray, but Desideri, a forgiving instructor, overpainted his work discreetly. Again, Forbes gifted nearly all of the paintings they worked on together to the museum, including An Angel Playing a Lute.
To view more materials from Forbes’s unpublished memoir, “Art Notes,” and the Forbes Teaching and Research Materials Collection, make an appointment to visit the Harvard Art Museums Archives. On June 26, 2019, from 12 to 2pm, visitors may also view a selection of archival photographs, correspondence, and objects documenting the museums’ teaching mission and its wider impact in the United States at the Cambridge Open Archives program in the Art Study Center.
Michelle Interrante is assistant archivist in the Harvard Art Museums Archives.