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Forbes, Edward Waldo

    Image Credit: Dumbarton Oaks

    Full Name: Forbes, Edward Waldo

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1873

    Date Died: 1969

    Place Born: Naushon, MA, USA

    Place Died: Belmont, Middlesex, MA, USA

    Home Country/ies: United States


    Harvard art historian and director of the Fogg Art Museum. Forbes was born into the quintessential Boston Brahmin family. His father, William Hathaway Forbes, organized the Bell Telephone Company with Alexander Graham Bell. His mother, Edith Emerson Forbes, was the daughter of the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. Forbes went to Milton Academy before attending Harvard University where the lectures of Charles Eliot Norton particularly inspired him, though he acknowledged that Norton ignored Egyptian and Asian and the medium of prints (Cohn). After graduation in 1895 he pursued postgraduate courses in a variety of areas including literature, history and music. In 1899, while traveling in Europe, he bought his first Italian masterwork, a painting then considered to be a Tintoretto. Norton’s son, Richard who was teaching in Rome, convinced Forbes to lend the picture to the Fogg Art Museum, which had opened in 1895. Forbes joined the Board of Trustees at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 1903, a position he subsequently held for sixty years. The next year, he joined the visiting committee of the Fogg where he set about urging Harvard’s wealthy alumni to donate and loan their paintings to the Fogg. He married Margaret Laighton (1885-1966), a lighthouse keeper’s daughter, in 1907. In 1909 he was appointed director of the Fogg, where Forbes found the print room to be “the best thing in the building.” By 1912 the Fogg, under his direction, had gained so many important works, that it had to be renovated. A new building was constructed in 1927 to house the enlarged collections. Forbes was one of the first to experiment with X-ray analysis of art work. Forbes’ credo was that art history students had to study to object first hand. He called the Fogg a laboratory for art history. Forbes persuaded fellow alumnus Paul J. Sachs to give up the family banking business in favor of developing the Fogg. The two formed a powerful professional partnership of fundraising, collecting, and educating, leading Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell (1856 – 1943) to call them “exuberant mendicants, Siamese twins.” Forbes was appointed Martin A. Ryerson professor in the fine arts at Harvard in 1935. He retired from Harvard and the Fogg in 1944. Forbes pioneered many art history courses, among them his Methods and Processes of Italian Painting one of the first courses preparing students for art museum vocations.

    Selected Bibliography

    [Forbes wrote no books. His contributions to the works of others are as follows:] Introduction. Gettens, Rutherford J. Painting Materials, a Short Encyclopaedia. New York: D. Van Nostrand Company, 1942; edited, and John H. Finley, Jr. The Saturday Club: a Century Completed, 1920-1956. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1958; [compiled by Laura M. Huntsinger under the direction of Forbes] Harvard Portraits: a Catalogue of Portrait Paintings at Harvard University. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1936; Forward, Pratt, Frances, and Fizell, Becca. Encaustic, Materials and Methods. New York: Lear, 1949; “The Beginnings of hte Art Department and the Fogg Museum of Art at Harvard.” Cambridge Historical Society Proceedings 27 (1941): 6-10.


    Mongan, Agnes. Edward Waldo Forbes: Yankee Visionary. Fogg Art Museum, January-February, 1971; Gaddis, Eugene R. Magician of the Modern: Chick Austin and the Transformation of the Arts in America. New York: Alfred Knopf, 2000, pp.52-54; [obituary] New York Times March 12, 1969, p. 33; Cohn Marjorie. Francis Calley Gray and Art Collecting for America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Art Museums, 1986, pp. 263-264.


    "Forbes, Edward Waldo." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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