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Sayre, Eleanor

    Full Name: Sayre, Eleanor

    Other Names:

    • Eleanor Axson Sayre

    Gender: female

    Date Born: 1916

    Date Died: 2001

    Place Born: Philadelphia, Philadelphia, PA, USA

    Place Died: Cambridge, Middlesex, MA, USA

    Home Country/ies: United States

    Subject Area(s): Spanish (culture or style)

    Career(s): curators


    Scholar of Spanish art and curator, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Sayre was the daughter of Francis Bowes Sayre (1885-1972) a Harvard Law School professor, and Jessie W. Wilson (Sayre) the daughter of President Woodrow Wilson(1856-1924). She attended Buckingham Brown and Nichols School in Cambridge, MA, and the Winsor School in Boston. Sayre graduated from Bryn Mawr College, with a B.A. in art history in 1938, continuing on to Harvard University for graduate study through 1940. She participated in the famous “museum course” taught by Paul J. Sachs, who introduced her to the study of prints. After summer work at the Fogg [Art] Museum at Harvard, she joined the Yale University Art Gallery as assistant in charge of exhibitions. Sayre entered the museum world at a time when many (male) curators were absent because of the war effort. In 1942 she became a gallery assistant at the Lyman Allyn Museum in New London, CT before moving to the Rhode Island School of Design’s Museum of Art as assistant in department of education, 1942-1945. After the war, she joined the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, as an assistant in 1945 under Henry P. Rossiter. Sayre focused her research on the art and particularly the works on paper of Francesco Goya. In 1951 the MFA prints curator Henry P. Rossiter acquired the proof series of Goya’s “Disasters of War” previously owned by the art historian William Stirling Maxwell. Sayre researched these, securing an American Philosophical Society grant to work on prints in Spain in 1954. She rose to assistant curator in 1960 and finally curator of prints and drawings department in 1967. She wrote the entries and introduction to Late Caprichos by Goya: Fragments from a Series in 1971. A Ford Foundation grant was awarded to her in 1975 to work on Goya’s drawings. Sayre taught at Harvard, conducting print seminars in the 1970s and 1980s. She retired as curator of prints and drawings at MFA in 1984, as curator emeritus. Sayre organized the 1989 show for the MFA with Alfonso E. Pérez Sánche, “Goya and the Spirit of Enlightenment” which drew larger crowds on opening weekend than the Museum’s somewhat salacious Andrew Wyeth exhibition on his model, Helga. She received La Medalia al Oro en las Bellas Artes from the Spanish government in 1991. Sayre was one of the first women curators at the MFA. As such, she dealt with indignities, such as taking her lunch at the back of the Museum’s public restaurant because the curators’ dining room was exclusively for male curators. Her development of the collection included 300 Dürer prints formerly in the collection of Tomás Harris (1908-1964) as well as personal collection, which she left to the Museum.

    Selected Bibliography

    and Pérez Sánchez, Alfonso E. Goya and the Spirit of Enlightenment. Boston: Bulfinch, 1989; The Changing Image: Prints by Francisco Goya. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, Department of Prints and Drawings, 1974.


    [obituaries:] “Eleanor Sayre, 85, Curator and Goya Expert.” New York Times May 17, 2001, p. 23; Long, Tom. “Eleanor Axson Sayre, Curator at the MFA and Authority on Goya.” Boston Globe May 15, 2001; Wilson-Bareau, Juliet. “Eleanor A. Sayre (1916-2001).” Burlington Magazine 143, no. 1183 (October 2001): 638.


    "Sayre, Eleanor." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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