Charles Callahan Perkins: Early Italian Renaissance Art and British Museum Practice in Boston

By Stein, Deborah Hartry | Journal of Art Historiography, June 2018 | Go to article overview

Charles Callahan Perkins: Early Italian Renaissance Art and British Museum Practice in Boston


Stein, Deborah Hartry, Journal of Art Historiography


In previous scholarship on the origins of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston ('Boston Museum') - incorporated in February, 1870 as one of the nation's first public art museums - art historians have frequently pointed to its similarity with London's South Kensington Museum ('South Kensington'), particularly as regards its mission to elevate the educational level of the public and the industrial design of everyday objects.1 While scholars have attributed this shared mission to the influence of the pioneering art historian and fine arts museum expert Charles Callahan Perkins (1823-1886), there has been no systematic and in-depth probing of the specific South Kensington museum practices adopted by Perkins, nor of the precise form that they took under his all-encompassing direction.2 This article undertakes to fill this lacuna in the belief that such a detailed exploration sheds much light on the particular character of the Boston Museum's foundational years.3 It asserts, in particular, that the privileging of early Italian Renaissance art at the South Kensington had its distinct echo in Boston under Perkins' management.4 In this regard, the article posits, as a second important institutional model for Perkins, the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition of 1857 ('Art Treasures Exhibition'), one of the earliest exhibitions to showcase fourteenth and fifteenth-century art in a public exhibition in England.5 Moreover, the article highlights Perkins' professional and personal relationships with, not only the individuals responsible for this emphasis at Manchester and South Kensington, Sir George Scharf, Jr. (1820-1895) and Sir John Charles Robinson (1824-1913), respectively, but also the leading adviser to the British Government on the fine arts at this time, Gustav Friedrich Waagen (1794-1868), who strongly influenced Scharf and Robinson. Insofar as Scharf and Robinson's strategies at Manchester and South Kensington were designed in part to overcome resistance from a number of worthies in the English art world to the public display of early Italian Renaissance art, a challenge that Perkins himself faced in establishing a fine arts museum in Boston, his close relationship with these individuals adds much substance to this article's focus.6 After a brief introduction to Perkins' youthful milieu, the article details his extensive and first-hand involvement with northern European art historical and museological developments, connects the key elements of his programme for American fine arts museums to these developments, and concludes with a demonstration of the close ties between Perkins' specific strategies at the Boston Museum and those inaugurated at the South Kensington. Figure 1 Charles Callahan Perkins, c. 1875. Photograph, 19.7 x 14 cm (mount). Boston: Boston Athenaeum. Giftof the Estate of Miss Eliza Callahan Cleveland, 1914. Photograph © Boston Athenaeum. Charles Callahan Perkins (1823-1886) was born on Pearl Street in the Old South End of Boston.7 (Fig. 1) As the scion of a major Boston family, Perkins was part of an extraordinarily tight-knit community of elites, a community which shaped his cultural consciousness in a profound manner.8 In 1829, at the age of six, Perkins lost his father, a tragedy which naturally imposed a great emotional toll, but did have the salutary effect of exposing him in his youth to certain members of the cultural avant-garde of Boston who, as his guardians or close associates of the same, were a significant presence in his life.9 Furthermore, leadership in the fine arts was in Perkins' blood. In 1822, Perkins' grandfather, James Perkins (1761-1822), donated his residence on Pearl Street to the Athenaeum, Boston's premier cultural organization founded in 1807, so that they might have the space needed for their growing book collections and at the same time deliver on their promise to support the fine arts. In 1827, Perkins' great uncle, Thomas Handasyd Perkins (1764-1854), inspired and then executed the first annual fine arts exhibition, a tradition that continued until 1873, when the Athenaeum ceded its authority therein to the new Boston Museum. …

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