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Revered Harvard Art Collection Will Travel

Harvard Art Museums announced plans to let the Grenville L. Winthrop collection of art leave Cambridge for the first time in the nearly 60 years that it has been in Harvard’s possession.

The Winthrop collection, which will travel in 2003 and 2004, is a little-known but highly significant collection--one of the great American collections in the tradition of those of Isabella Stuart Gardener and Henry Clay Frick.

Grenville L. Winthrop, class of 1886, bequeathed his collection--which includes works by 19th-century masters such as van Gogh, Ingres, Renoir and Sargent, as well as one of the most important collections of Chinese art in the West--to Harvard upon his death in 1943, requesting that the collection remain in Cambridge for students.

But when University Art Museums Director James Cuno began organizing the traveling exhibitions four years ago, he thought that the Harvard Art Museums would be closed for renovation soon. The plans have since been put off, but as the contracts to museums holding the traveling exhibits have already been signed, the exhibitions will proceed.

“This is once in a lifetime,” Cuno said.

Two separate exhibitions will travel to museums such as the Metropolitan Museum and the National Gallery of Art in London. One will feature European artworks dating from 1800 to 1920, and the other will be composed of Chinese pieces.

Though Harvard will not be charging a fee to museums for the exhibitions, Cuno said there will be many benefits.

Because they have always been at Harvard, “the works have not been given the scholarly attention that they deserve,” he said.

But, for the exhibitions, leading scholars of each artist plan to write about the collections’ works for a catalogue to accompany them.

Cuno said that through the exhibitions, the works will receive their proper recognition, which has been difficult with the collection in Cambridge.

“That’s what we get out of it,” said Cuno. “It’s something that we don’t have now.”

Though Harvard receives about 100 requests for loans for various outside exhibitions, to loan out individual pieces would go against Winthrop’s wishes, according to Cuno.

Winthrop specifically asked that his collection be primarily at the disposal of the Harvard community, even at the expense of its worldwide renown.

He spurned requests from the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. to donate his work there. Instead, his work forms the foundation of the Fogg Art Museum and of the Arthur M. Sackler Museum’s Asian collections.

His interest in art was inspired during his undergraduate years by Professor Charles Eliot Norton, after whom Harvard’s yearly Norton lecture on art is named. Norton believed, as did Winthrop, that art plays an enormous role in human civilization.

Winthrop, of the illustrious Boston family, turned early to art after a career in finance.

According to Cuno, after his wife died and his children estranged themselves from him by marrying beneath their station, Winthrop “sought the kind of perfection in art that he couldn’t find in the real world.”

“A Private Passion: 19th-Century Paintings and Drawings From the Grenville L. Winthrop Collection, Harvard University” will travel to the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lyon, France, from March 15 to May 26; the National Gallery of Art in London from June 25 to Sept. 14, 2003; the Metropolitan Museum of Art from Oct. 20, 2003, to Jan. 11, 2004; and the National Gallery of Art in Washington from Feb. 22 to May 16, 2004.

The early Chinese art exhibition opens at the National Gallery in Washington in February 2004, before traveling to Beijing, Japan and other locations.

Staff writer Eugenia B. Schraa can be reached at schraa@fas.harvard.edu.