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This Weekend in Met History: October 20

Aleksandr Gelfand, Former Intern, Museum Archives

Posted: Friday, October 18, 2013

John Christen Johansen (American, 1876–1964) | Robert W. de Forest | 31.36

John Christen Johansen (American, 1876–1964). Robert W. de Forest, 1931. Oil on canvas; 49 7/8 x 36 in. (126.7 x 91.4 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of the Trustees of the Museum (31.36)

«One hundred years ago this weekend, on October 20, 1913, Robert W. de Forest was unanimously elected the fifth president of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. De Forest had been involved with the Museum since its inception in 1870 and had served on its Board of Trustees since 1889, first as a Trustee and later as its secretary and vice president.»

De Forest was born on April 25, 1848, in Greenwich Village to an old New York family descended from Jesse de Forest, a French Huguenot and the original leader of the Walloon emigrants who became the first settlers of what was then New Amsterdam.[1] De Forest recalled that there were few opportunities to see great art collections in New York when he was a child, noting that his mother once took him to see a single painting—Emanuel Leutze's Washington Crossing the Delaware, now owned by the Metropolitan—that was on display at a store on Broadway.[2] Although he longed for an art career, de Forest followed his father's advice and studied at the University of Bonn and Columbia Law School, from which he received his LL.D. in 1872.[3]

De Forest's association with The Metropolitan Museum of Art dates back to the first decade of the institution's existence, when he began courting Emily Johnston, daughter of the Museum's first president, John Taylor Johnston. According to de Forest's account:

On the day [the Museum] was founded, I became engaged to the daughter of one of the founders and I married her as soon as I could. It was my good fortune to be associated with my father-in-law in the worries and the pleasures of the early days of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.[4]

In 1889, de Forest's relationship to the Museum became formal when he was elected one of its Trustees. Soon after, de Forest traveled to Europe, where he visited a number of museums and observed their methods of acquiring, arranging, and managing their art collections. He also noted that the Museum could substantially augment its holdings by purchasing works from European sources, writing to fellow Trustee Henry G. Marquand that "the opportunities for spending money to advantage are undoubtedly very great, if we only had some."[5] At the time, the Museum was on weak financial footing; like many of the Museum's early Trustees, de Forest frequently made personal contributions to alleviate budget deficits.

Letter from Robert W. de Forest to Luigi Palma di Cesnola, first director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Letter from Robert W. de Forest to Luigi Palma di Cesnola, first director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, February 13, 1889. Office of the Secretary Records, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Archives

As the first decade of the twentieth century drew to a close, New York geared up to celebrate both the tercentennial of Henry Hudson's voyage up the Hudson River and the centennial of the maiden voyage of Robert Fulton's steamboat, also on the Hudson. De Forest, one of the organizers of the 1909 celebration, assembled a commemorative exhibition of artworks at the Metropolitan Museum that included American colonial arts and crafts. Prior to the twentieth century, art collectors exhibited little interest in early American furniture and decorative objects; Robert and Emily de Forest were among a small but enthusiastic group of those devoted to the field. The Hudson-Fulton Celebration exhibition exposed thousands of people to American decorative arts for the first time.

Program for opening of the Hudson-Fulton Celebration exhibition

Program for opening of the Hudson-Fulton Celebration exhibition. Office of the Secretary Records, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Archives

Many of the colonial items on display in the exhibition came from de Forest himself, who began collecting American decorative arts with his wife shortly after their marriage. Emily de Forest first became enthusiastic about early American furnishings during a visit to Connecticut in the mid-1870s. She recalled:

I hired a buggy and started off in search of loot. I had to disarm the farmers' wives somehow, so I prepared a little tale (which was really true) about my aged grandmother who came from Scotland many years ago and who had now given me her beautiful FOUR-POST BEDSTEAD, made by an old Scotsman, DUNCAN PHYFE by name, of whom they had evidently never heard! I spoke of my little cottage by the sea and told them that I very much wished to find some small furnishings to go with my old four-poster.[6]

Among the best-known items given by Mrs. de Forest to the Museum was the interior of a farmhouse from the vicinity of Woodbury, New York. Built for John Hewlett, a loyalist during the Revolutionary War, the room had a secret staircase that he supposedly used as an escape route. As the story goes, Hewlett's luck ran out when the loud ticking of his watch announced his location to his pursuers.

Fireplace wall paneling from the John Hewlett House | 10.183

Probably John Hewlett. Fireplace wall paneling from the John Hewlett House, 1740–60. Panel: 9 ft. 3/4 in. x 17 ft. 3 in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mrs. Robert W. de Forest, 1910 (10.183)

During the Hudson-Fulton Celebration exhibition, Robert and Emily de Forest conceived of the idea for a Museum wing that would house a permanent collection of Americana. Four years later, when Robert de Forest was elected president of the Museum, the idea remained on his mind. Mrs. de Forest later recalled:

It was in […] I think, that my Rob, who had gradually become very sympathetic with my hobby, said to me: "You and I are becoming more and more interested in early Americana, and the more we think about it the more we wish that such pieces of early American furniture, silver, brass, glass and china as are now scattered in the Metropolitan Museum could all be collected and shown together. We have more means now" he said "than when you began to find such things. How would you like it if we gave to the Museum an American Wing in which some or all of these interesting things could be shown together?" That thrilled me and we agreed that we would offer to add an "AMERICAN WING" to the Museum, which could house all such appropriate articles as they already had, including such things as would be loaned to them.[7]

The Museum's American Wing opened to the public in 1924. By the time of its completion, the Museum's collections of Americana were large enough to fill fifteen of the wing's eighteen planned galleries.

Evelyn Beatrice Longman (American, 1874–1954) | Mr. and Mrs. Robert W. de Forest, 1922 | 34.82.2

Evelyn Beatrice Longman (American, 1874–1954). Mr. and Mrs. Robert W. de Forest, 1922. Bronze and gold leaf; Diam. 2 1/16 in. (5.2 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mrs. Robert W. de Forest, 1934 (34.82.2)

Robert and Emily de Forest were not the only artistically inclined members of the de Forest family. Robert's younger brother Lockwood studied art both in Rome and under the tutelage of several Hudson River School artists. Branching out into design, his works were eagerly sought out by collectors, and the Metropolitan eventually acquired several examples. Lockwood also collected objects from as far away as India and donated them to the Museum; a notable gift was a sixteenth-century Jain temple that is still on display today.

Architectural Ensemble from a Jain Meeting Hall, last quarter of 16th century | 16.133.1

Architectural Ensemble from a Jain Meeting Hall, last quarter of 16th century. India (Gujarat, Patan). Teak with traces of color; H. (approx.) 15 ft. (4.58 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Robert W. and Lockwood de Forest, 1916 (16.133.1)

When the architectural ensemble was unveiled to the public in 1918, the World Magazine wrote a glowing review:

Kipling and Sir Edwin Arnold may transport us in imagination to the mystic splendors of ancient India; but visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, now actually cross the threshold of the famous Temple of Vadi Parasnath, at Pattan, and stand in the dim religious light of a two-storied domed room, lighted by little topaz and ruby-glowing windows with balconies of elaborate construction, and by handing lanterns of antique bronze, enclosed in panels, grill-work and friezes of the richest jewel-like carving in Oriental teakwood, of a sort hitherto unknown outside of the forbidden shrines of Asia.[8]

Robert W. de Forest died on May 6, 1931, at the age of eighty-three. The Metropolitan Museum closed its offices on the day of his funeral, and the New York Sun published a tribute to him the following day:

Some men give time to the service of the public; some give money. Mr. De Forest gave both, freely and untiringly. And the time and thought he contributed to a score of problems were of greater value than money, for none could have bought the mind and the enthusiasm which he put at the disposal of the City, the State and the Nation.[9]

Emily de Forest continued to support the Museum with yearly donations until her death in 1942.


[1] Emily Johnston de Forest, A Walloon Family in America; Lockwood de Forest and His Forbears 1500–1848 (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), 13–27. Read the full text online.
[2] "Address by Robert W. de Forest," The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Vol. 25, No. 5 Part 2, May 1930, 4.
[3] "Tributes Paid Robert de Forest," New York Sun, May 7, 1931.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Robert W. de Forest, letter to Henry G. Marquand, October 18, 1892. Office of the Secretary Records, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Archives.
[6] Emily Johnston de Forest, "My Memories," 2. Office of the Secretary Records, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Archives.
[7] Ibid.
[8] "Transplanting a Hindu Temple to New York," World Magazine, June 2, 1918.
[9] "First Citizen of New York," New York Sun, May 7, 1931.

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About the Author

Aleksandr Gelfand was formerly an intern in the Museum Archives.

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