An interview of Eleanor Sayre conducted 1993 April 19-1997 January 10, by Robert F. Brown, for the Archives of American Art.
Sayre talks about her early childhood in Williamstown and Cambridge, Mass.; her family background; visits to the White House with her maternal grandfather, Woodrow Wilson; living abroad while her father was in government service in Bangkok, then Siam (now Thailand), Paris, and Switzerland, with extensive recollections of her brothers and schooling in Europe.
Attending Winsor School in Boston; her mother's death; her years at Bryn Mawr College, including her switch to art history from political science; Georgianna Goddard King as an influential teacher; an internship under Laura Dudley at the Fogg Art Museum's Print Room and the lasting effect of this experience.
Being a graduate student in fine arts at Harvard and the importance of Edward Forbes and Paul Sachs as teachers; her decision not to pursue a PhD; working with Jakob Rosenberg; helping to get young Jews out of Europe; her position as assistant for exhibitions at Yale University Art Gallery under Theodore Sizer; the trauma of her father's internment by the Japanese in the Philippines, where he was High Commissioner and his rescue; and her decision to turn down a military intelligence job in order to work with German Jewish refugees.
Her brief tenure at Lyman-Allyn Museum, Conn., under Winslow Ames; her years in the education department under Lydia "Ma" Powel at the Museum of Art of the Rhode Island School of Design with Gordon Washburn as director; and working closely with Heinrich Schwartz on prints and drawings.
The liberal tradition of her father's wealthy family; her father; being brought to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston by its curator of prints, Henry Rossiter and on the charming collector and benefactor, Maxim Karolik; MFA curator of paintings, William George Constable; and George Harold Edgell, MFA director.
The collector, Philip Hofer, who by putting his Goya proofs on loan at the MFA, led to Sayre's life-long study of the artist; her research on Goya in Spain; raising of a large sum from Boston businesses to purchase Hofer's prints for the MFA, and the MFA's eminence by the 1960s in Goya's graphic work; the disgusting repression of dissent in Franco-era Spain; Goya's passionate self-assertion, which is what principally attracted Sayre to his work, and his conceptual process and method of work.
Earlier years at the MFA, Boston, including the accessibility of the print department's study rooms; Edwin J. Hipkiss, curator of American decorative arts; the Christmas poetry and prints exhibitions designed as profound learning experiences for a broad public; and being chosen as successor to Rossiter; and further comments on Maxim Karolik.
W.G. Russell Allen and other collectors who gave their collections to the MFA; her efforts to effectively present art to the broad public; her methods of appealing to the public coalescing at the MFA in 1989 with the "Goya and the Spirit of the Enlightenment" exhibition; and an exhibition of the work of Beatrix Potter.
Spain under the dictator, Francisco Franco; her first study in Spain of Goya's drawings and her urging the Prado Museum to conserve its drawings; the Prado's director, F. Sanchez-Canton; her research on prostitution at the Ministry of Justice; being decorated for her recommending the preservation of Goya's art and the marvelous private collections of Goya in Spain; and her obsession with interpreting the meaning of Goya's work.
The MFA, Boston, under the directorship of Perry Rathbone, who wanted many more people involved than had his predecessor, George Harold Edgell, who ran it like a Boston Brahmin Club; Rathbone's accomplishments; his downfall and that of his assistant (and curator of European decorative arts and sculpture) Hanns Swarzenski in bringing a so-called Raphael into this country by irregular means, which led to Rathbone and Swarzenski's firing by George Seybolt, the trustee president; Rathbone's reluctance to hire women curators and Sayre's finally becoming curator of prints and drawings in 1967; her philosophy as curator; on Hanns and Brigitte Swarzenski as dear friends; her exchange of positions with the curator of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, where she put their valuable but neglected print collection in order.
The exhibition and catalog, "Rembrandt: Experimental Etcher," (1969) in collaboration with the Pierpont Morgan Library; general views on exhibitions; co-authoring the exhibition catalog "Goya and the Spiris of Enlightenment" (1989); her contributions to Goya research; her current research and writing on Goya's Capaprichos print series; and her satisfaction in having spent her career in art museums.
Biographical / Historical:
Eleanor A. Sayre (1916-2001) was a curator and art historian from Boston, Mass.
Originally recorded on 8 sound cassettes. Reformatted in 2010 as 15 digital wav files. Duration is 11 hrs., 21 min.
This interview is part of the Archives of American Art Oral History Program, started in 1958 to document the history of the visual arts in the United States, primarily through interviews with artists, historians, dealers, critics and administrators.