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September 20, 1996

Agnes Mongan (1905-1996)

 

AGNES MONGAN, IN MEMORIAM

 

Agnes Mongan, a pioneer in the study of drawings and curator emerita of drawings at the Fogg , and the first female director of the Fogg Art Museum, died on Sunday, September 15, at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge. She was 91 and a resident of Cambridge.

During her extraordinary career which spanned six decades, Agnes Mongan had a profound influence on her peers and colleagues, as well as on generations of fine arts students, many of whom went on to become curators in major national museums.

"Agnes Mongan was one of those individuals whose rare qualities and values embody the deepest purposes of an institution," Neil Rudenstine, President of Harvard University, said in a statement. "She was inimitable. She was the soul of intellectual scrupulousness, with the most penetrating sense of absolute standards. She was, in addition, a sympathetic spirit -- gracious, encouraging, and generous. She fixed her keen eye on works of art as objects to be understood in all their detail -- as well as in terms of their vital human and aesthetic effects. She was a scholar, curator, director, connoisseur, teacher, counselor and friend to countless people over the course of many decades in the life of the Fogg Art Museum, the Department of Fine Arts, and the University. We already feel her loss as profoundly as we were -- for so long -- aware of her vital presence."

James Cuno, Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director of the Harvard University Art Museums, said in a statement, "Agnes was that rare individual who could combine a high regard for tradition with a love of the new and the exciting. An acknowledged expert on old master drawings and a friend of the new art of her time, especially that of Alexander Calder and Virgil Thompson, she was, in a way, not unlike the work of the artist she most admired and for her scholarly work is best known, the French painter and draughtsman, Jean-August-Dominique Ingres. Like Ingres's work, she offered us a twist on the traditional that was, in the end, more modern than old fashioned. She was, in her tastes, habits, and courage, in no way conventional."

Born in Somerville, Massachusetts in 1905, Agnes Mongan knew at an early age that she loved works of art and that she longed to know more about them. Mongan's father, a family doctor, was determined that she receive the finest education possible and sent her to Bryn Mawr College, where she studied art history and English literature. Upon Agnes' graduation from Bryn Mawr in 1927, Dr. Mongan insisted that she, like his other children, spend a year abroad. Agnes chose to spend her year studying Italian art with a Smith College Seminar; her studies took her to Florence and Paris, and then to points beyond in Northern Italy and Central Europe, affording her opportunities to examine closely works of art in the original, with a particular emphasis not only on their history, but also on their present condition.

Following this remarkable year abroad, Mongan returned to Cambridge where she completed the requirements to receive her Master's Degree from Smith College. In 1929, she also accepted her first position at the Fogg Art Museum as a research assistant under Paul Sachs, cataloguing his collection of drawings. Indeed, Mongan has stated that she owes the development of her career and interest in drawings primarily to Sachs, a 1900 graduate of Harvard College, former banker, and longtime associate director of the Fogg Museum. Under Sachs' supervision, Mongan developed a network of professional and social contacts during her early years at the Fogg and she was granted access to some of the most important private collections in the world. In the following decades, Agnes Mongan became one of the leading connoisseurs of Old Master drawings, and she went on to play a principal role in the history of connoisseurship in this country.

In the 1930s the Fogg collection contained more drawings from France than from any other country, and, perhaps as a result, Mongan's interest in French drawings flourished. Mongan devoted herself to the writing of the catalogue Drawings in the Fogg Museum of Art throughout the '30s; however, she also published numerous articles on individual drawings in the museum's collection, always basing her reporting on accurate scholarship. In addition to her full-time pursuits at the Fogg, Agnes Mongan also spent considerable time exploring her interest in contemporary art. In the 1930s she was one of the founding members of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, and she later became involved with the activities of the Museum of Modern Art.

William Robinson, Ian Woodner Curator of Drawings at the Fogg Art Museum, said in a statement, "Agnes Mongan was one of the twentieth century's outstanding scholars in the field of European old master and nineteenth-century drawings. Drawings in the Fogg Museum of Art (1940), written by Miss Mongan and the Fogg's Associate Director Paul J. Sachs, is a work characterized by meticulous description, thorough research, incisive analysis and concise prose, which established a new standard for museum catalogues of drawings.

"As curator of drawings for nearly fifty years, she oversaw the development of the Fogg's holdings from a miscellany of no more than local significance to a comprehensive collection of international renown," Robinson continued. "Several thousand drawings entered the collection during her tenure. They included works acquired in the major gifts and bequests that form the core of the collections as well as drawings she was able to secure with a modest purchase fund that, she liked to recall, usually amounted to about $80 per year. An inspiring teacher, Miss Mongan was also a tireless advocate outside the classroom for her subject. She organized innumerable exhibitions of works from private collections and solo shows of drawings by artists ranging from Ingres to Andrew Wyeth. Her most important exhibition, French Drawings from American Collections: Clouet to Matisse, was seen in Rotterdam, Paris and New York in 1958-1959."

When Grenville Winthrop bequeathed his enormous collection of art to the Fogg Art Museum in 1943, Mongan embarked upon its catalogue. The Winthrop bequest opened a new era in scholarship of French art for Mongan; her area of specialty, originally Italian and French drawings of the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, was now extended to include French drawings of the nineteenth century. Cataloguing the Winthrop collection enabled her to devote years to the research of works by French artists other than Degas or Daumier. Specifically it presented an extraordinary opportunity to study the work of Ingres; 35 drawings by Ingres entered the Fogg via the Winthrop bequest. The grace, delicacy, elegance, and precision she admired in French art were strikingly embodied in the drawings by Ingres. In recognition of her growing expertise in French art, she was asked to assist in the cataloguing of the French paintings in the Frick Collection in New York, and it was while she was working on the French paintings at the Frick that Mongan states that she became an "Ingriste."

Agnes Mongan became the first female curator at the Fogg Art Museum in 1947 when Harvard University finally lifted its policy banning women from being appointed curators (until that time, she held the title "Keeper of Drawings"). In 1951, Miss Mongan was appointed assistant director of the Fogg, thereby assuming administrative responsibilities in addition to her established career as a scholar and curator in the drawing department.

Although Miss Mongan taught classes for many years, it wasn't until 1960 that her role in the Department of Fine Arts was acknowledged officially. Her appointment as the Martin A. Ryerson Lecturer in Fine Arts gave formal recognition to her long-standing teaching situation. Mongan always maintained that although the Fogg is open to the public, its primary function is the development of scholars and museum professionals. To this end, she gave freely of her time to all students who displayed a serious interest in drawings, encouraging them, helping them in their projects, and editing and promoting their publications.

Margaret Morgan Grasselli, curator of Old Master drawings, National Gallery of Art, said in a statement, "Miss Mongan's seminars on drawings were legendary and served as the instructional cradle for several generations of curators, connoisseurs, and collectors. Those of us who were fortunate enough to take one of her courses remember fondly her infectious passion for the drawings, the delightful anecdotes she would relate about each one, and especially the traditional trip to New York to visit dealers, exhibitions and private collections. For the students who shared her passion for drawings and were deemed to have an 'eye,' Miss Mongan used her considerable prestige and influence to open doors to life-shaping opportunities."

In 1964 Agnes Mongan's title was changed to associate director, and then in 1968 when John Coolidge retired as director of the Fogg, Miss Mongan was named Acting Director. In 1969, she was appointed director of the museum, placing her among the first female directors of a major museum in the United States. When she took on the job of running the Fogg, times were not favorable for American museums. Private funding was at a minimum, many of the old donors were gone, and the country and the university were preoccupied with the escalating conflict in Viet Nam. In spite of these difficulties, Miss Mongan carried on the museum administration according to traditional practice. As assistant, associate, and then director of the Fogg, Mongan always maintained an active role in the Museum, working on numerous committees and boards, organizing and overseeing social functions of openings and dinners at the Fogg, and traveling abroad to museum meetings and functions.

When Agnes Mongan retired as director of the Fogg in 1971, she retained her title as curator of drawings and continued in that position until 1975. Throughout the 1970s, she received numerous awards, honorary degrees, and accolades including the Merito della Republica Italiana by the Italian government for "her help with the restoration of art following the floods of Florence and her years of work fostering Italian culture." Miss Mongan was also awarded numerous visiting professorships including a visiting directorship of the Timken Art Gallery in San Diego, Edith Kreeger Wolf Distinguished Professor at Northwestern University, Bingham Professor at the University of Louisville, visiting professor at the University of Texas, Kress Professor at the National Gallery of Art (the first woman to hold that position), and visiting professor of fine arts at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Well into the 1980s, Miss Mongan maintained an extremely active schedule of new projects, including presenting lectures nationally and internationally, and writing and editing numerous articles and contributions to Art Museum publications.

In 1994, Ms. Mongan was once again honored at the Harvard University Art Museums, when the Agnes Mongan Center for the Study of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs opened at the Fogg Art Museum. She is the author of the recently published catalogue, David to Corot: French Drawings in the Fogg Art Museum (Cambridge, Harvard University Press), 1996.

 

HARVARD UNIVERSITY ART MUSEUMS

September 17, 1996