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Coolidge, John P.

    Image Credit: Harvard

    Full Name: Coolidge, John P.

    Other Names:

    • John Coolidge

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1913

    Date Died: 1995

    Place Born: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, England, UK

    Place Died: Cambridge, Middlesex, MA, USA

    Home Country/ies: United States

    Subject Area(s): architecture (object genre) and sculpture (visual works)


    Architectural historian and Director of the Fogg Art Museum, 1948-1972. Coolidge’s family was closely associated with Harvard University and Boston. His father, Julian Lowell Coolidge (1873-1954) was a mathematics professor at Harvard and first master of Lowell House, Harvard, and an uncle, Archibald Cary Coolidge (1866-1928), Professor of History (1908-1928) at Harvard College and the first Director of the Harvard University Library (1910-1928), Harvard. The Coolidge’s were related to Thomas Jefferson and the Lowell families of Cambridge, including the poet James Russell Lowell (1819-1891). John P. Coolidge attended Harvard, taking over the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art, a student-run gallery founded by Lincoln Kirstein (1907-1996), Eddie Warburg and John Walker III, from graduating art-history students Otto Wittmann, Jr., and Perry T. Rathbone. He received a B. A. from Harvard in 1935 marrying Mary Elizabeth “Polly” Welch (1912-2003) the same year. His intent was to become an architect; the 1932 “International Style” exhibition on modernist architecture, launched by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson had fired his enthusiasm for contemporary architecture. Coolidge moved to New York in order to study architecture at Columbia University, however, he switched to architectural history believing he lacked talent for design. He entered New York University in 1936 in order to study with the newly arrived émigrés from Nazi Germany that NYU had hired. These included Erwin Panofsky and Karl Leo Heinrich Lehmann as well as his ultimate dissertation advisors, Walter Friedlaender and Richard Krautheimer. In 1940 he participated in the founding of the Society of Architectural Historians, initiated by Kenneth John Conant and was its first vice president. In 1942 Coolidge published the research for his master’s degree in a unique examination of a factory town-architecture, both industrial and residential, Mill and Mansion: a Study of Architecture and Society in Lowell, Massachusetts. The book was such a strong social history that Columbia University Press published it in their series “Studies in American Culture.” Coolidge’s dissertation topic was on Giacomo Barozzi, Il Vignola. A seminal article on Vignola and the architect’s contribution to the Villa Giulia and St. Peters, appeared in 1943. His dissertation was nearly complete when he joined the U. S. Navy during World War II, initially as an ensign. He was posted in communications in Washgington, D. C., and London. He was discharged in 1946, taught at the University of Pennsylvania until his dissertation was accepted in 1947. He was appointed an Assistant Professor in the department of Fine Arts at Harvard in 1947 and in the following year was named Associate Professor and director of Harvard’s Art Museums. As director of the Fogg Art Museum, he built the art collections, particularly in Islamic and modern. The same year, 1948, he was named a trustee of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. In 1955 he was promoted to full professor. Coolidge continued the Fogg’s tradition of the museum as a laboratory for curatorial studies, begun under Paul J. Sachs. He retired from the Fogg as William Dorr Boardman Professor of Fine Arts, Emeritus, in 1972, presiding as president of the MFA, Boston, 1973-1975. In his later years, Coolidge tackled art museum architecture, Patrons and Architects, again, examining how buildings affect the environment for which they exist in his 1989 book. An art history, Gustave Doré’s London, appeared in 1992. His funeral was held in the 1760 Christ Church, Cambridge, MA, a building by Peter Harrison (1716-1775) which Coolidge had studied and about which he had written. He was known to roller skate between train trips on his Princeton, N. J. to New commutes. The John Coolidge Objects Laboratory at the Harvard Museums is named in his memory. Nicholas Adams characterized Coolidge as an architectural historian striving for a cohesive analytic for architecture, one which would honestly evaluate what Coolidge considered the “wearisome pageant of rivals” with genuine architectural innovation. He avoided an architecture that was typological or regional in its method. He eschewed architectural biography in favor of a history that examined social and economic factors. As a museum director, Coolidge notably added the first modernist works to the Fogg, including the first Morris Louis.

    Selected Bibliography

    “The Vill Giulia: A Study of Central Italian Architecture in the Mid-Sixteenth Century.” Art Bulletin 25 (1943): 177-225; Mill and Mansion: a Study of Architecture and Society in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1820-1865. New York: Columbia University Press, 1942; Patrons and Architects: Designing Art Museums in the Twentieth Century. Fort Worth, TX: Amon Carter Museum, 1989; Gustave Doré’s London: A Study of the City in the Age of Confidence, 1848-1873. Dublin, NH: William L. Bauhan, 1992.


    Kleinbauer, W. Eugene. Modern Perspectives in Western Art History: An Anthology of 20th-Century Writings on the Visual Arts. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971, p. 51 mentioned; [transcript] Coolidge, John. The Modern Sensibility at the Fogg Art Museum: Interviews with Art Historians, 1991-2002. Malibu, CA: UCLA Oral History Program/Getty Research Institute, 1993; “A Foggy Final.” Time January 26, 1962, p. ; [obituaries:] Adams, Nicholas. “John P. Coolidge, Architectural Historian.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 54 no. 4 (December 1995): 400-401, 511; Ackerman, James S., and Cuno, James, and Jaffe, Arthur, and Levine, Neil, and Slive, Seymour. “Memorial Minute: John P. Coolidge.” Harvard Gazette [online]


    Contributors: Emily Crockett and Lee Sorensen


    Emily Crockett and Lee Sorensen. "Coolidge, John P.." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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