Library: Library Collections
Works of Art
Although the Massachusetts Historical Society is not a museum, its collections include works of art, many of which came as part of donations of personal and family papers. The Society began collecting paintings in 1796, when it traded sea shells for an oil painting of Thomas Hutchinson. Since that time the MHS art collection has grown to include 380 portrait paintings, 67 city- and landscapes, 165 miniature portraits, and 52 sculptures. Some of these items are on display in the library and on this website, but most can be viewed only by appointment. Please contact the curator of art.
A selection of the Society's works of art and historical artifacts appear in Witness to America's Past: Two Centuries of Collecting by the Massachusetts Historical Society, an exhibition catalog published in 1991 by the MHS in conjunction with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. You may find out about purchasing a copy of this book at the web page describing MHS published Catalogs. Records for paintings, portraits, and sculpture are available in ABIGAIL.
Many of the Society's portraits are of well-known historical figures, including John and Abigail Adams, by Benjamin Blyth; Anne Pollard, the last survivor of the 1630 Puritan migration, painted at 100 years of age; Daniel Webster, an especially popular subject with several artists in our collection; and George Washington, from life by Joseph Wright with John Trumbull and also by Christian Gullager. Most of the portraits owned by the MHS appear in Portraits in the Massachusetts Historical Society, published by the Society in 1988.
Boston artists constitute one particular strength of the painting collection, boasting works by John Singleton Copley (1738-1815), Chester Harding (1792-1866), Alonzo Hartwell (1805-1873), Samuel Stillman Osgood (1808-1885), and John Smibert (1688-1751). The miniature painting collection includes pieces by Sarah Goodridge (1788-1853) and Richard Morell Staigg (1817-1881). Cityscapes and landscapes form a small but important subset of the collection. James Marston's State Street, 1801, Josiah Wolcott's Brook Farm, and the early-19th-century view of The Old Feather Store, Dock Square are three of the better known examples.
The MHS sculpture collection primarily consists of portrait busts. Prominent 19th-century sculptors such as Thomas Ball, Richard S. Greenough, Henry Dexter, and Hiram Powers are represented in the collection. The Society also owns two works by Dover, Mass., sculptor Amelia Peabody (1890-1984).
The Society's collection of graphic material includes approximately 4,000 portrait prints and drawings, most of which are of 19th-century American and British notables, and roughly 230 silhouettes. There are approximately 2,000 prints, drawings, and posters of historical events from the European discovery of America to the present, including a large collection of World War I recruiting and war loan posters. Other separate collections include bookplates, trade bills, watercolors, and Civil War patriotic covers.
There are many early New England prints in the collection including Richard Mather, attributed to John Foster, the earliest known American woodcut portrait. There are two important prints by Peter Pelham, Cotton Mather and Plan of the City and Fortress of Louisbourg after Richard Gridley. Revolutionary era views include two of Christian Remick's watercolors of Boston Harbor showing the landing of British troops in 1768, as well as prints by Paul Revere and Edward Savage.
Information about items in the graphics collection is largely limited to in-house databases and card catalogs, although records for World War I posters, silhouettes, and other selected graphics are available in ABIGAIL.