About Edward Waldo Forbes (1873-1969)
Edward Waldo Forbes was born July 16, 1873 on Naushon Island, southwest of Cape Cod. He was the son of William Hathaway Forbes, founder and first president of the American Bell Telephone Company, and Edith Emerson Forbes, daughter of poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. Forbes studied at Milton Academy before entering Harvard University, where he received an A.B. in 1895. During his studies at Harvard, Forbes' interest in the fine arts was encouraged by Professor Charles Eliot Norton. In 1898, Forbes traveled to Europe and began an earnest study of art and art history, with a focus on Italian primitive paintings. During these travels he also began to acquire early Italian paintings. Forbes studied English Literature at Oxford University from 1900 to 1902.
Upon his return to Cambridge (Massachusetts) in 1902, Forbes formed the Harvard Riverside Associates, a group that purchased land between Harvard Yard and the Charles River which would later become part of Harvard's campus. Forbes continued to cultivate his interest in art and became a trustee of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 1903 and of the Fogg Museum in 1904. He also taught at the Middlesex School in Concord, Massachusetts for one term in 1904, but was obliged to leave the position due to poor health. In 1907, he married Margaret Laighton, an accomplished gardener and watercolorist. They were married until her death in 1966 and raised five children at Gerry's Landing, the Forbes' Cambridge home.
In 1907 Forbes taught his first course, on Florentine painting, at Harvard. He became Lecturer in Fine Arts in 1909, the year he became Director of the Fogg Museum. Forbes continued to teach throughout his years as Director and was named Martin A. Ryerson Lecturer in Fine Arts in 1935. He was most well-known for his "Egg and Plaster" course, entitled Methods and Processes of Italian Painting, in which students learned about artists' materials and techniques by painting frescoes and using egg yolks to bind tempera to panels.
Forbes assumed the directorship of the Fogg Museum in 1909, when its first director, Charles Herbert Moore, retired. At that time, the museum's annual income was minimal, its collections limited, and its architectural spaces not conducive to display and study. Forbes described the collections as being installed, "in galleries where you could not see, adjacent to a lecture hall in which you could not hear." He immediately began efforts to improve the physical spaces of the museum, to garner financial support for its operation and endowment, and to build and strengthen its collections. Forbes was tremendously successful in these endeavors; by the time he retired from the directorship in 1944 the Fogg collection had become extensive and world-renowned, the museum was in a new building (opened in 1927) vastly more suited to its purposes, and the museum's financial situation was decidedly more stable.
Forbes' accomplishments at the Fogg were inextricably connected to those of Paul J. Sachs, whom Forbes persuaded to join the Fogg Museum as Assistant Director in 1915. Under Forbes and Sachs' direction for almost thirty years, the Fogg Museum built a distinguished teaching collection, sponsored a range of archaeological expeditions, and trained curators and directors for many American museums. Both men retired in 1944.
The technical study of works of art was one of Forbes' most passionate interests. He founded the Center for Conservation and Technical Studies (now named the Straus Center for Conservation) at the Fogg in 1928; it was the first fine arts conservation treatment, research, and training facility in the United States. Forbes pioneered the use of x-rays to analyze the technique and authenticity of paintings, to detect repainting and to further study of attributions. He was also instrumental in the publication and success of Technical Studies in the Field of the Fine Arts, which was published from 1932 to 1942. In recognition of his accomplishments, Forbes was named the first honorary fellow of the Institute of Conservation on his 85th birthday, in 1958. At that time the Institute (now formally called the International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works) also established an Edward Waldo Forbes prize in his honor.
Forbes received many awards and distinctions throughout his career and was also active on various boards and committees. He received two honorary degrees from Harvard: an A.M. in 1921 and a Doctor of Arts in 1942. He was also honored with an LL.D. from the University of Pittsburgh in 1927. Forbes served in the American Red Cross in Italy during the first World War, and he was named Chevalier by the French Legion of Honor in 1937. He was a trustee of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts for sixty-three years (beginning in 1903) and also a trustee of the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, Connecticut. Forbes was also on the administrative committee of the Dumbarton Oaks Collection and Research Library of Byzantine Studies in Washington, D.C. from 1941 to 1963. In addition, he was a trustee of the Public Reservations of Massachusetts for more than sixty years and a founding member and president of the American Research Center in Egypt from 1948 to 1962.
Throughout his life, Forbes was an avid outdoorsman; he loved to sail, hike, ride and swim, and he was active in the yearly sheeping on Forbes family properties at Nashawena and Naushon Islands in Massachusetts. He was an enthusiastic painter, teased for lugging excessive equipment on even the smallest painting outing, and also loved music and singing. Forbes' kindness, hospitality and generosity were legendary.
Edward Forbes died in Belmont, Massachusetts on March 11, 1969.
By Laura Morris, Harvard Art Museum Archives. (c)President and Fellows of Harvard College.
For more information about the Fogg Art Museum and the Straus Center for Conservation, visitwww.artmuseums.harvard.edu.
Correspondence and other papers of Edward Forbes are held by the Harvard Art Museum Archives. Detailed information regarding Edward Forbes' papers is available at oasis.harvard.edu.