Transforming Tradition at the Harvard Art Museums

by Sarah Sutro

A diagonal ramp rises gently to the front door of the newly renovated Harvard Art Museums (HAM) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Renzo Piano, the architect responsible for the renovation, has retained the old Fogg Art Museum’s formal entrance with its steep, straightforward steps facing Quincy Street, while offering something startling and new. In a sense, he has reconfigured Harvard Yard, with its right-angle conventional orientation, aligning the new museum with the Le Corbusier studio building next door. The Renzo Piano Building Workshop (RPBW) worked on the Harvard renovation intensively from 2008 until last November, when the entire facility reopened. Much of the original structure remains, while modernized, expanded and brightened.  


Harvard’s renovated central Calderwood courtyard greatly increases public accessibility. Students and pedestrians can walk through it to reach Harvard Yard, as well as visit the café and museum store without entering a gallery. The former Fogg, with its old world feel, had a cloister-like atmosphere, with dim light filtering through a flat glass roof in the courtyard. Now, a translucent box on top of the already existing piazza suggests a mod- ern greenhouse atop an ancient building. The museum centers on an inner courtyard with an arcade for walking, essentially a cortile with bits of medieval capitals adorning pillars.1 On the eastern side of the building, a large walkway extends the width of the new design, extending the curved ramp of Le Corbusier’s Carpenter Center, drawing the larger, renovated brick building towards his concrete modernity. A long, curving line links both buildings. Meanwhile the renovation dominates the corner of Broadway and Prescott Streets, seizing new spaces on both sides, less an aesthetically pleasing set of forms, and more a utilitarian composite that affords the best possible showing of spaces inside.  

Newly integrated, the Fogg, Busch-Reisinger and Sackler collections now function as a single museum. Galleries rise up chronologically from floor to floor. There are exceptions, where works are brought in to make a point or show cross-cultural ferment, but in general the more contemporary work is on the ground floor, moving upward into the collections once housed in the Sackler (from the classical, Mediterranean and Ancient Eastern worlds). The top floors contain the Art Study Center, Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, Lightbox Gallery and Seminar Rooms. A materials lab and a large lecture hall can be found on the basement level. Points of tranquility, as well as of intensity, characterize each gallery, offering off-center entrances, access to “winter garden” glassed-in porches and embedded cases between galleries that house light-sensitive works on paper and small objects.  

Originally modeled after Bramante’s courtyard for the church of Santa Maria della Pace in Rome, and also the façade of the canon’s house at San Biggio in Montepulciano, the Calderwood Courtyard, as a shared community space, reflects its origins in the traditional Italian piazza. It was part of the original design of the second Fogg building in 1927.2 The director of the Harvard Art Museums, Thomas Lentz (who has recently announced his retirement), calls the courtyard a “symbol of the institution.”  

Extended Ramp of Le Corbusier's Carpenter Center<br/>HARVARD ART MUSEUMS, CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS

A Multidisciplinary Center  


In a sense, the Harvard Art Museums have begun their inspiring “third chapter.” The first Fogg Museum opened in 1895 in a Beaux-Arts building devoted to a new fine arts department, with a small collection of Western paintings, photographs and plaster casts. In 1927, a new building provided better-lit galleries and new teaching spaces. The Busch-Reisinger, a museum of German and Northern European Art, opened nearby in 1901 on Kirkland Street, and was eventually absorbed into the Fogg when an addition was built in 1991.  

Characterized by research and teaching, and influenced by the museums at Oxford and Cambridge, as well as by German scholarship, the Fogg helped “to shape the professional study of art in the United States.”3 In 1922, Harvard became the first university in America to offer Asian art history courses, and began to acquire Asian art and sponsor archeological exploration in Asia.4 The Fogg also developed into a “multidisciplinary center for conservation science.”5  

The enlarged institution is not only a forum for viewers from around the world, but also a teaching museum. Through lectures, seminars, examination of works and explorations of the intersections of art and technology, the Harvard Art Museums aspire to be a “meta lab.” In the Lightbox Gallery, every work in the collection is represented by a tiled digital image, and works once associated with one of the earlier constituent museums are now seen in dialogue with the entire collection. In the new “University Galleries,” professors will pre-order the hanging of shows specific to their course needs for a day, week, month or semester, while the Art Study Center provides everyone an opportunity to examine drawings and prints by appointment. Analytic labs and study tables at the Straus Center and Materials Lab allow students to learn about various ways of understanding and preserving art. The Forbes Collection, a cabinet system of paint, artist pigments and bindings, extends along the entire western wall of the fourth floor. All of these centers are an experiment in transparency, between the Harvard community and the public, between periods of art and between the objects themselves, supporting innovative teaching and learning.  

The New Installation  


The old Fogg’s circuitous rooms led to surprising collections; climbing the Sackler stairs once revealed a marble torso or a fragment of an ancient sculpture, as if we were discovering an ancient vault. Now the reconfigured floors offer startling new choices, sightlines highlighting certain works of art, encouraging new ways to connect and view the collection. In the gallery to the far right of the main entrance, Max Beckmann’s triptych The Actors appears, the king with a golden crown flanked by masked figures, radiating power over distance. Painted in Amsterdam where Beckmann lived in exile 1937–47, it is one of the nine finished triptychs that are among his most powerful works. Five were painted in Amsterdam, where he fled the day after the opening of the Degenerate Art exhibition staged by Hitler, who had ordered Beckmann’s prominently displayed work to be saved as an example of Germany’s degradation. Beckmann frequented late-night cafes, brothels, bars and burlesque shows, and The Actors reflects this turbulent atmosphere, suggesting anxiety, fear, social and political upheaval and loss of identity, as well as dream and myth.6 Another Beckmann, Self-Portrait in Tuxedo (1927), arrests the viewer. Beckmann’s body fills the canvas. This work is literally black and white. Suited for a night out, his face and body half in shadow against a background that is also split, Beckmann presents a face that has become a mask. Although, at the time, Beckmann held a prominent professorship and believed that “artists should be among the leaders in the new social and political order and they should dress the part,” his position was precarious.7 The Fogg purchased Self-Portrait in Tuxedo in 1941 as the first contemporary painting in its collection.  

Master of the Holy Blood, <i>St. Luke Painting the Virgin and Child, </i>1520<br/>HARVARD ART MUSEUMS/FOGG MUSEUM, PHOTO: HARVARD ART MUSEUMS, COURTESY PRESIDENT AND FELLOWS OF HARVARD COLLEGEOn the second floor is an excellent small collection of Netherlandish art, including a striking painting attributed to the Master of the Holy Blood, Saint Luke Painting the Virgin and Child (1520), reminiscent of Rogier van der Weyden’s image of St. Luke in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (1427). In Harvard’s painting, St. Luke paints on an easel and seems more interested in his work than in the child. The space is more enclosed, highlighting elaborate architecture, more late Renaissance, with almost a narrative feel. Other notable works in the Netherlandish collection are two paintings by Aelbrecht Bouts, The Man of Sorrows (1490s) and The Mater Dolorosa (1490s), and small works by followers of Gerard David and Van der Weyden. In an adjoining gallery are early Italian paintings. The color in Fra Angelico’s Christ on the Cross (1453–55) and the two Lorenzettis is revealed so much more acutely in this central gallery, in a new, brightly lit context.  

Some of Harvard’s Impressionist works are installed on the second floor, in a long narrow gallery. Here we see a posthumous cast of Degas’s bronze Little Dancer, Aged 14 (original 1880), the only sculpture he ever showed publicly, with its real tulle skirt and hair ribbon. Given to the museum in 1943, it is not idealized, but presents an ordinary working-class dancer. Hung directly behind the sculpture is Degas’s Cotton Merchants in New Orleans (1873). Ever the innovator compositionally, Degas created a huge amount of space: a table moves diagonally back into the middle ground, and the three figures are pushed to the upper third of the painting.  


At Harvard today, we find old favorite paintings in new juxtapositions, in brilliantly lit galleries, with a transformed courtyard that centralizes our experiences. The old piazza form is now exactly what it was meant to be: a gathering place where students, faculty, scholars and the public can come together.  


1. Kathryn Brush, Vastly More than Brick and Mortar: Reinventing the Fogg Art Museum in the 1920’s (Cambridge: Harvard University Art Museums, 2003), 74. 

2. Brush, 68, 74. 

3. Brush, 15. 

4. Ibid, 58–59. 

5. Ibid, 100. 

6. Wolf-Dieter Dube, Expressionism (New York: Praeger, 1972), 164–65. 

7. Judith H. Dobrzynski, “An Artist at the Height of His Powers,” Wall Street Journal (December 4, 2010),, accessed December 15, 2014.