The Beginnings of Art History at Harvard, Part 1: Charles Eliot Norton, John Ruskin, and the Teaching of Art History

By Marjorie B. Cohn
May 29, 2024
Index Magazine

The Beginnings of Art History at Harvard, Part 1: Charles Eliot Norton, John Ruskin, and the Teaching of Art History

This watercolor bust-length portrait depicts a middle-aged man with brown hair and a stern expression. He wears a dark jacket over a gray vest and a bright blue necktie.
Charles Herbert Moore, American, John Ruskin, c. 1876–77. Watercolor and white gouache over graphite on off-white wove paper. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of the Misses Sara, Elizabeth, and Margaret Norton, 1919.1.

In this first of two articles about the foundation of art history as a discipline at Harvard—leading the way among U.S. institutions—Marjorie B. Cohn explores the influence of John Ruskin’s scholarship and teaching on the curriculum.

On January 15, 1874, scholar Charles Eliot Norton wrote a letter to his cousin Charles William Eliot, the young president of Harvard who was then revamping the college curriculum in favor of specialty departments and elective courses. Norton set down on paper what must have been the summary of several conversations:

In a complete scheme of University studies the history of the Fine Arts in their relation to social progress, to general culture, and to literature should find a place, not only because architecture, sculpture and painting have been, next to literature, the most important modes of expression of the sentiments, beliefs and opinions of men, but also because they afford evidence, often in a more striking and direct manner than literature itself . . . and thus become the most effective aids to the proper understanding of history.[1]  

President Eliot then appointed Norton as inaugural lecturer in the new Department of Fine Arts, the first art history department in the United States. In 1875, Norton was raised to the rank of professor.[2]

Norton’s Early Interest in Art

As the son of Andrews Norton, the first Dexter Professor of Sacred Literature at Harvard Divinity School, and of Catherine Eliot, who was descended from wealthy merchants, traders, and investors, Charles Eliot Norton was by birth a member of the intelligentsia of mercantile New England. After graduating from Harvard College in 1846, he became involved in business, traveling for several years to India and Europe.

Norton wrote home to his mother in 1850 that Venice is “a familiar and friendly place to me for it [is] the subject of our Cannaletti [sic] . . .”[3] Evidently, etchings by Canaletto hung at Norton’s family home, Shady Hill, which was situated on 34 wooded acres in Cambridge. Presumably, these etchings are the four proof impressions now in the Harvard Art Museums collections; their accession numbers begin with FA, indicating that the Fine Arts Department had turned them over to the Fogg Art Museum, along with more than 300 other prints, drawings, paintings, and a textile in 1926. The museum’s “FA Canalettos” (and some other prints) are inscribed “N. Coll. Oct. 1874,” as if they had, a half-century earlier, joined the new department with their owner.[4]

Exposure on his travels to the poor of Asia and industrial Britain caused Norton to develop low-cost housing in Boston and an evening school for workmen in Cambridge. He also wrote reviews and essays for a long-standing periodical, the North American Review, and helped found The Nation and The Atlantic Monthly. During the Civil War, Norton, a sickly father of several small children, was not drafted, but as a convinced abolitionist, he wrote, edited, and distributed anti-slavery texts to newspapers throughout the northern states.

Any nascent interest Norton had in art was stimulated by his summers spent in Newport, Rhode Island, at his family’s seaside retreat. In the early 19th century, Newport was an artist’s colony, and it is there where Norton befriended John Frederick Kensett, a Luminist landscape painter; Charles Herbert Moore, a leading American Pre-Raphaelite artist; and William James Stillman, a painter and photographer who founded The Crayon, the nation’s first arts periodical, and who ardently promoted Pre-Raphaelitism. Norton organized exhibitions of Pre-Raphaelite art in New York and Boston in 1857 and 1858 and purchased works from them, and he became a subscriber to The New Path, a short-lived American Pre-Raphaelite periodical of the mid-1860s.

Norton’s Friendship with Ruskin

Inevitably, Norton met John Ruskin, the primary proponent of the British Pre-Raphaelites. Ruskin was considered “the day’s most powerful critic, a prodigy of literature and architectural history, champion of the stormy paintings of JMW Turner.”[5] In the words of Charles William Eliot, Ruskin’s prose rose to “a pitch of gorgeousness in color and cadence which has been surpassed by none.”[6] With a letter of introduction from art critic and collector James Jackson Jarves, Norton sought out Ruskin at home in November 1855 in order to see his collection of Turner’s works. From that point on, Norton and Ruskin began an intimate transatlantic friendship sustained by frequent letters; their correspondence was interrupted only during the Civil War, when Ruskin sided with the South.

By the late 1860s, Norton’s resumed correspondence focused on requesting Ruskin’s aid in building a collection of prints and drawings. The Englishman complied as best he could, sending 14 plates of Turner’s Liber Studiorum from his own collection to Cambridge in 1867 and the following year sent a selection of copies of Turner drawings and watercolors made by William Ward. Ruskin assured Norton, “They are executed with extreme care under my own eye by the draughtsman trained by me for the purpose, Mr. Ward. . . . I think them about the best works that can now be obtained for a moderate price, representing the authoritative forms of art in landscape.”[7] A copy executed by Ward, turned over by the Fine Arts Department to the Fogg Museum, bears Ruskin’s reaffirmation of its quality: “Seen, and again approved—14th Augt. 76 J Ruskin.”

Ruskin’s reference to price reflects Norton’s insistence on paying for acquisitions from or through Ruskin, although Ruskin occasionally gave Norton prints of little value, and Norton sought them out from dealers as well. We can see the two friends ringing all the changes in response to Ruskin’s opinion of Valentin Lefevre, a 17th-century Flemish printmaker. In 1868, Ruskin told Norton that Lefevre was “the only engraver who ever understood anything of Titian,” singling out Lefevre’s version of Death of Saint Peter Martyr for special praise.[8] Almost three years later, Norton wrote Ruskin, “I beg you to get me any or all of Lefebre’s [sic] engravings from the Venetian masters. I have searched for them in vain. The one you once gave me is very precious.”[9]

We can assume that this gift was Death of Saint Peter Martyr, because the collection of prints bequeathed to Harvard in 1989 by Susan Norton, Norton’s granddaughter, includes two impressions of the print. One was probably Ruskin’s gift and the other belonged to Opera Selectiora, the portfolio of Lefevre’s etchings after Titian and other 16th-century Venetian painters. Ruskin declared about the portfolio, “If you can get the complete series . . . they will be quite enough to teach you . . . everything that is teachable in composition.”[10] Evidently, Norton eventually found the intact portfolio.[11] There seems little doubt that most of the prints in Susan Norton’s bequest had been her grandfather’s study collection.

By 1873, Norton’s demands of his friend had become more insistent and specific, and implied his teaching position at Harvard was already under discussion. On November 13, he wrote to Ruskin:

And can you spare me some piece . . . of your own careful architectural pencil drawing? . . . I want a bit of elaborated work to show how a master does work when he sets himself to tell the truth about a sight. . . . what is not good enough for Oxford will serve some good purpose here. There is a lively interest & a genuine interest & a deep respect for you here, which will by & bye bear good fruit.[12]

Among the dozens of Ruskin drawings that once belonged to the Fine Arts Department are many pencil renderings of Gothic architecture in France and Italy “elaborated” with ink and watercolor.[13]

Norton’s reference to Oxford relates to Ruskin’s appointment in 1869 as Oxford University’s first Slade Professor on the History, Theory, and Practice of the Fine Arts. Ruskin was all things to his Oxford students: he lectured to them on art and architectural history, modern painting (especially that of J.M.W. Turner), and social and cultural concerns more widely. He provided a study collection of artworks: originals—from his own drawings of architectural ornament to Turner’s etchings for the Liber Studiorum—replicas, and photographs. He taught students to draw in a way that would develop their skills in perception. That Norton looked to Ruskin for artistic guidance is demonstrated by his public lectures on the Liber Studiorum in spring of 1874, accompanied by an exhibition in Boston and an edition of heliotype reproductions. Norton was priming his fellow citizens’ vision for an art history curriculum—one in which course titles were not strictly made up of letters and numbers, for instance—that would debut in Cambridge that fall. 

A New Curriculum at Harvard Is Formed

Just days before Norton sent to Eliot his definitive proposal for instruction in art history in Harvard's new Department of Fine Arts, he wrote to Ruskin, “I want to be made Professor in the University here that I may . . . be brought into close relations with youths whom I can try to inspire with love of things that make life beautiful, & generous.”[14] But Norton knew perfectly well that he could not duplicate Ruskin’s multifaceted performance at Oxford; specifically, he couldn’t make painted or drawn copies of historical art or architecture, or instruct his students in drawing.

In fact, a couple of years earlier, Ruskin had attempted to teach Norton, through their correspondence, how to draw a geometric form in space, using as a model a Chinese teacup.[15] A letter from Norton, writing up his first classes in October 1874, made clear the help he had found in Ruskin’s prose: “After fitting up the skeleton of my lectures with the dry bones of German erudition, I come to you always to help me clothe it with living flesh.”[16] With Ruskin as his model, Norton could manage the lectures himself, and the Harvard administration appropriated several thousand dollars a year for the purchase of photographs and other reproductions to support his teaching.

To learn about Ruskin’s relationship with another early instructor at Harvard’s Fine Arts Department, Charles Herbert Moore, read Part 2 of this essay.

Marjorie B. Cohn is the Carl A. Weyerhaeuser Curator of Prints, Emerita, at the Harvard Art Museums.


[1] Quoted in James Turner, The Liberal Education of Charles Eliot Norton (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 257.

[2] Details of the life of Charles Eliot Norton are primarily drawn from two biographies: Turner, The Liberal Education of Charles Eliot Norton, cited above, and Linda Dowling, Charles Eliot Norton: The Art of Reform in Nineteenth-Century America (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, for the University of New Hampshire Press, 2007); the exhibition catalogue Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr., and Virginia Anderson, The Last Ruskinians: Charles Eliot Norton, Charles Herbert Moore, and Their Circle (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Art Museums, 2007); and the correspondence between Norton and John Ruskin: John Lewis Bradley and Ian Ousby, eds., The Correspondence of John Ruskin and Charles Eliot Norton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987). I am also indebted to archival resources in Harvard’s Houghton Library and the Harvard Art Museums. Quotations from these and other sources are directly referenced in the text.

[3] Charles Eliot Norton to Catherine Norton, 25 March/1 April 1850, Houghton Library, MS Am 1088.2, box 9.

[4] The expanded inscription would read “Norton Collection, October 1874.” The accession numbers for the Canaletto etchings are FA10–FA14. They were probably purchased by Norton’s father and were inherited by his son along with the house and property. They can be seen on the Harvard Art Museums website, where the other FA prints are also listed, as well as many other artworks with accession numbers beginning 1926.33, deposited by the Fine Arts Department.

[5] Walker Mimms, “When Whistler Sued Ruskin,” Hyperallergic, February 4, 2024,

[6] Charles W. Eliot, ed., “Introductory Note,” The Harvard Classics, Vol. 28 (New York: P. F. Collier & Sons, 1910), 94.

[7] Bradley and Ousby, Correspondence, 102, 107. Turner’s Liber Studiorum was a compilation of more than 70 prints of different modes of landscape. Most of them had outline compositions etched by Turner himself, with mezzotint shading added by a professional engraver.

[8] Ibid., 111, letter of August 23, 1868.

[9] Ibid., 228, letter of April 9, 1871, written from Venice.

 [10] Quoted from Ruskin’s Modern Painters in Marjorie B. Cohn, “Turner • Ruskin • Norton • Winthrop,” Harvard University Art Museums Bulletin, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Art Museums, 1993), 20.

 [11] The accession numbers of the Lefevre prints from Susan Norton: M21243–M21288, with Death of Saint Peter Martyr being M21246 and M21247. Apart from the complete portfolio in the Norton bequest, the departmental collection included three plates now in the Harvard Art Museums collections, with accession numbers FA38, FA41, and FA42.

 [12] Bradley and Ousby, Correspondence, 299.

 [13] Yet perhaps the best of the Harvard Art Museums’ Ruskin drawings are those that were Norton’s own; the Fogg Museum purchased them from his daughters in 1919 with funds given by Samuel Sachs, father of Paul Sachs, assistant director of the Fogg. Norton’s personal collection included