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Sesquicentennial Snapshots: In the beginning…

Along with Vassar College, the Art Center is celebrating the sesquicentennial anniversary of our founding. In this weekly feature, we will look back on the rich 150-year history of the collection.

Asher B. Durand’s “Through the Woods” was one of the original works purchased by Matthew Vassar from Elias Magoon for the Vassar Art Gallery.

On January 15, 1864, Matthew Vassar wrote boldly to the Reverend Elias Magoon, “…I want our College to posses your Collections.” Vassar had just returned to Poughkeepsie after his first visit to Magoon’s Albany residence. However, the original purpose of the trip was not to view or purchase Magoon’s collection. Instead Vassar set out in midst of winter in upstate New York to sooth Magoon’s injured ego.

Elias Magoon photographed in 1855.

While the Trustees were planning their new college, they made the remarkable decision to endow their new school with an art collection that would be studied and enjoyed by their students. Magoon had been appointed Chairman of the Committee on the Art Gallery in 1861 and was upset when he learned in November 1863 that artist Emma Church had been commissioned and executed copies of European paintings without his consent. When he was asked to review the works, he wrote a lengthy and inspiring treatise about the value of original works of art and threatened to resign from the Board of Trustees.

Vassar recorded in his diary that the trip to Albany was “quite the task”, referring to negotiating with Magoon to remain on the Board. Although the two men had settled most of their differences through letters, Vassar wanted to demonstrate his appreciation of Magoon by travelling to Albany, particularly difficult for Vassar because he suffered from vertigo. When Vassar arrived at Magoon’s home he was dazzled by what he found.

Over the course of his career, the Baptist minister had assembled an impressive collection of over three thousand works of art. Magoon purchased many of the works directly through correspondences with artists such as Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, Frederic Church, and others now collectively referred to as the Hudson River School. Magoon also exchanged letters with the influential art critic John Ruskin, securing rare watercolors by Ruskin and his favorite artist, J.M.W Turner. Matthew Vassar was understandably astonished by what he found in Albany. Magoon agreed to the sale (writing to a close friend that on that January day he had “timidly breathed… a proposition which not even my wife, ever heard from lips.”) and the collection was catalogued and installed on the third floor of Main Building for the college’s opening.

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