George PeabodyThe Peabody Art Collection

A Treasure for Maryland

History of the Peabody Art Collection

"...I have determined without further delay, to establish and endow an Institute in this City, which, I hope, may become useful towards the improvement of the moral and intellectual culture of the inhabitants of Baltimore, and collaterally to those of the State: and, also, towards the enlargement, and diffusion of a taste for the fine arts."

With these words, philanthropist George Peabody established The Peabody Institute and its Gallery of Art in 1857. At the time, the city was booming economically but had very little cultural life, including no free public library, art gallery or musical organization.

Probably inspired by England's cultural institutions, the Peabody Institute was the first of its kind in the United States. In the 1850s, there were only a very few art galleries in the U.S., mainly in Boston and Philadelphia. Only two American art galleries surviving today were founded before the Peaboby Institute: the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts and the Peale Museum in Baltimore.

The Institute provided Baltimore with an excellent scholars' library, an academy of music, a lecture series, and art gallery which, in the words of Peabody himself, was to "train the public taste to a true appreciation of the value of that artistic skill which has won the admiration of mankind from the earliest ages of civilization." Peabody was assisted in the planning and design of his institute by Maryland author John Pendleton Kennedy. Long before the founding of the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters Art Museum, the Peabody Gallery was a place for people to see important works of art.

Although established in 1857, the gallery did not begin to collect art until 1873, when Institute trustee John W. McCoy presented it with the sculpture Clytie by the preeminent Baltimore sculptor, William Henry Rinehart. Soon thereafter, John Work Garrett, president of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, bought for the Gallery a collection of plaster casts of antiquities as well as a half-size bronze copy of the gilded bronze doors on the east portal of the Florentine Baptistry, which were created by Italian Renaissance sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455).

Not only did the Peabody Art Gallery quickly become a center of cultural and scholarly activity in the city, but it also functioned as an art school and museum. Many of the city's leaders used the Gallery to exhibit their own collections of works. In 1893, the Institute acquired the collection of Charles James Madison Eaton, one of the original trustees. This wonderful collection included paintings, watercolors, numerous drawings, portraits, miniatures, porcelain, and bronzes.

In the early twentieth century, the gallery acquired two more important collections: McCoy's, which included sculptures by Rinehart and paintings by Thomas Hovenden and Hugh Bolton Jones, and George Carter Irwin's collection of paintings. In addition, Irwin's sisters established the Irwin Fund, which the Gallery used to buy paintings by distinguished Americans such as Winslow Homer, George Inness, and Childe Hassam.

During this time, the art gallery held many exhibitions of contemporary art, displaying photography, handicrafts, the works of women artists, and a show of modern cubist and futuristic artists that caused a sensation in the city.

While the art gallery grew to become an integral part of the cultural life of Baltimore, the conservatory of music was also expanding. In the mid-1930s, the decision was made to close the gallery in order to make space for the conservatory. The art works were placed on long-term loan to the Walters Art Museum and the Baltimore Museum of Art, both of which had superseded the Peabody as Baltimore's premier galleries of art.

In 1977, The Johns Hopkins University took the Peabody Institute under its wing in order to provide the Institute with financial stability. By the late 1980s, however, the Institute had become a financial burden that the University could no longer sustain, and it turned to the state and the private sector for assistance. A task force headed by then Lt. Governor Melvin Steinberg devised the Peabody Plan, which provided for a $15 million contribution to the endowment fund of the Peabody Institute in return for the Peabody Art Collection being acquired by the state of Maryland. Johns Hopkins University undertook to raise a similar amount from private fundraising.

On June 28, 1996, the state made the final payment to the Peabody Institute and the title to the art collection passed to the state. The collection is managed by the Maryland Commission on Artistic Property of the Maryland State Archives and its Curator.

Primary Source: Elizabeth Schaaf, "Baltimore's Peabody Art Collection," in The Archives of American Art Journal 24 (1984).
Elizabeth Schaaf is the Archivist of the Peabody Institute.

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Copyright 2002, Maryland State Archives