When visitors enter the Harvard Art Museums this November, the depth and breadth of our collections will take them on an aesthetic and intellectual journey—to the ancient Near East while looking at stone seals used thousands of years ago, for instance, or to World War I–era Germany when standing before Johannes Molzahn’s dual-sided painting Four Fallen Soldiers in Cosmic Space/Homunculus (c. 1916/1920). And thanks to a recent major gift from David and Julie Tobey, visitors will be taken to 17th-century Rome in a gallery dedicated to works from the Italian Renaissance.
David Tobey ’58 was immersed in art from birth. His parents, Barney Tobey and Beatrice Szanton, were artists whose work was featured in The New Yorker. Growing up in New York City, Tobey recalls how his parents, instead of taking him to sporting events, took him to the city’s great museums (venues that often appeared in his father’s cartoons). His affinity for art strengthened through coursework in fine arts at Harvard and visits to the Fogg Museum, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Tobey’s collecting interests span the globe, often inspired by his travels. Following graduation, he moved to Singapore for work. While there, he traveled throughout Southeast Asia and began collecting art from the region, including Chinese porcelains and Japanese prints. Later, on travels to South America, he began what would become a remarkable pre-Columbian art collection. Then, after marrying and resettling in New York, Tobey and his wife, Julie, focused on collecting Italian art. That collection grew into one of the world’s most notable private collections of Italian old master drawings. (The couple also collects 17th-century Dutch and Flemish paintings.)
Tobey and his wife share a deep commitment to Italian arts and culture: Julie is currently chair of Amici dei Tatti (Friends of I Tatti), which is part of Villa I Tatti, Harvard University’s postdoctoral research institute for Italian Renaissance studies, located in Florence; David serves on the council. The couple makes an annual trip to Italy, which David first visited as an undergraduate. Now, visitors to the David and Julie Tobey Gallery will be able to share the couple’s profound appreciation for the important place Italy has held in the history of art.
Like their art collection, the couple’s philanthropy has personal roots. As a college student, David received a scholarship; as an alumnus, he established a scholarship fund to return that generosity. He has supported select students (called Tobey Scholars) at Harvard College who are concentrating in the fine arts or in disciplines related to the fine arts and history.
This fall, the Tobeys will be able to meet the scholarship recipients in the gallery bearing the Tobey name. “The Harvard Art Museums’ new facility will greatly enhance the Tobey Scholars’ experience,” David remarked. “It’s different from other museums; it’s a teaching museum where people, especially Harvard College students, can develop their interests and knowledge in art.”