September 19, 1996
University Gazette


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  Agnes Mongan Dies at 91

Former Fogg Director spent career at Harvard

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

During her extraordinary career, which spanned six decades, 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," said President Neil L. Rudenstine. "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 University Art Museums, said, "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 whom 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, Mass., in 1905, 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. She 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 works of art in the original.

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 -- 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, 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.

Mongan devoted herself to the writing of the catalogue Drawings in the Fogg Museum of Art throughout the '30s. In addition to her full-time pursuits at the Fogg, 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, "Agnes Mongan was one of the twentieth century's outstanding scholars in the field of European Old Master and nineteenth-century drawings. As curator of drawings for nearly 50 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. Several thousand drawings entered the collection during her tenure."

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, 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.

In 1964 Agnes Mongan's title was changed to associate director, and then in 1968 when John Coolidge retired as director of the Fogg, 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 Vietnam. In spite of these difficulties, 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, and traveling abroad to museum meetings and functions.

When 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." Well into the 1980s, 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, 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 (Harvard University Press, 1996).

Agnes Mongan is survived by her sister Elizabeth Mongan of Rockport and several cousins.


Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College