This exhibition explores the nucleus of the Addison Gallery of American Art’s permanent collection—the 58 works presented in 1928 by Thomas Cochran, the Addison’s founder, to Phillips Academy in celebration of the institution’s 150th anniversary. Cochran, a college football coach turned partner in J.P. Morgan & Co., had demonstrated no particular interest in collecting art prior to his decision to amass a collection for his beloved alma mater, but he believed in the promise of fine art to permanently enrich the lives of Phillips Academy students. A prominent figure in New York high society, he relied on the advice of a committee of upper-crust art world luminaries: architect Charles A. Platt, gallerist Robert G. McIntyre, collector Lizzie P. Bliss, and philanthropist Zaidee Cobb Bliss. Unconstrained by a strict budget—or, indeed, any budget at all—Cochran set about acquiring exclusively American works of art, primarily paintings, that would lay the foundation of what McIntyre boldly predicted would become, “the finest collection of pictures possessed by any institution of learning in this country.”
Taken as a whole, the rather eclectic mix of works comprising the foundational corpus of the Addison’s collection reflects not just the best of what was available on the market at the time but also the predilections of those who contributed to its creation. It is not surprising, considering the comparatively conservative tastes of Cochran’s advisors—aside from Museum of Modern Art co-founder Lizzie P. Bliss—that the core of the Addison’s collection is dominated by paintings from the latter half of the 19th century by a veritable who’s who of artists whose reputations have stood the test of time like Thomas Eakins, Winslow Homer, George Inness, and James McNeill Whistler and a few that have not. The 1928 gift set standards for quality and value to which Cochran adhered as he continued to collect, engaging in what Charles Sawyer, the Addison’s first curator, later called “one of the most courageous adventures in the history of American collecting,” an adventure that culminated in the May 1931 opening of the Addison Gallery of American Art.
This exhibition is generously supported by the Bernard and Louise Palitz Exhibitions Fund and the John-Esther Art Fund.