The inaugural exhibition in the Museum’s new Vincent and Linda Buonanno Works on Paper Gallery celebrates the remarkable contributions of two women, Eliza Greene Radeke (née Metcalf, 1854–1931) and her niece Helen Metcalf Danforth (1887–1984), to the Museum collection. Both were instrumental to the formation and growth of the Rhode Island School of Design as a whole and to increasing the institution’s prestige. Eliza Radeke served as President of the Board of Trustees from 1913 until her death in 1931. Helen Danforth succeeded her aunt as President and Chair from 1931 until 1965. Exhibited here are highlights from their numerous gifts, many of which are now the Museum’s best loved and most notable works.
Founded in 1877, RISD’s stated purpose was to educate artists in drawing, painting, modeling, and design for the benefit of industry and art, and to educate the public so that they could appreciate and support art and design. The creation of a museum collection was inseparable from those objectives. In that spirit, both Eliza Radeke (the daughter of one of RISD’s founders, Helen A. Metcalf) and Helen Danforth made extraordinary donations to all departments of the Museum, especially to drawings, prints, ancient art, textiles, American furniture and decorative arts, and European and American painting. Drawings and prints were essential to the overall educational goals they set, as well as being personal passions for both women. Between them, they presented over 1,300 prints and drawings to the Museum. The number of works of art that they found on the market, recommended for purchase, or gave anonymously is much greater than this figure.
Although both women had wide-ranging tastes and purchased exceptional drawings of all types, a few broad generalizations may be made about the kinds of drawings they sought and favored. Eliza Radeke was inspired by works on paper as germinations of artistic ideas, seeing in them instructive potential. Sketches, including figure studies, animal studies, landscapes, and portraits all fit this ideal. She often selected a notable subject or exquisite technical example over a well-known artistic name. Helen Danforth’s gifts reflect her interest in acquiring works by the most important artists and thereby increasing the prestige of RISD and its Museum. She enhanced the holdings with many finished presentation drawings by the greatest names in the history of art. Both approaches have enriched the collection in innumerable ways, and both may be observed in this gallery.
Mrs. Radeke’s brothers, Stephen O. Metcalf and Senator Jesse H. Metcalf, funded this building and dedicated it to her in 1926. The current exhibition presents many drawings that hung in the original Radeke Building installation and during the following years. The breadth of the Museum’s holdings is unthinkable without the philanthropy of the Metcalf family, especially its female members. The legacy of Eliza Radeke and Helen Danforth to RISD and to all of Southeastern New England is one of the finest and most diverse collections of drawings and prints in the United States.