Highlighting Women in the MFA’s History

Maureen Melton

One of the great pleasures of my work as Museum historian is learning about the generous donors who have helped build the MFA and its collection. I’m especially interested in exploring the little-known personal stories of women donors who provided vital funding and treasured works of art. In celebration of Women’s History Month, I offer just a glimpse into the important contributions from women donors who were pivotal in the early years of the Museum’s history. The connoisseurship of the women mentioned in the video below also greatly enhanced the Museum’s collection of Impressionist art.

In Loving Memory

Maria Evans (1845–1917) and her husband, Robert, were art collectors, and Robert was an MFA trustee. To honor her husband’s commitment to the Museum after his death, Maria funded the full cost of an extensive expansion at the MFA—$1 million, equivalent to more than $32 million today—for a new wing for the exhibition of paintings. The wing opened in 1915 and Maria was the toast of Boston for her remarkable generosity.

Born and raised in Weymouth, Massachusetts, Maria Antoinette Hunt married Robert, a family business associate, in 1867. Robert moved to Boston from Canada with his mother following his father’s untimely death. After graduating from high school, he joined the Union Army until he was discharged for twice suffering serious wounds. In 1863, Robert took an entry level job at a rubber manufacturing company, starting his meteoric rise in business: within 25 years he was leading one of the largest rubber companies in the world. Maria and Robert lost their only child as a toddler and devoted much of their time cultural pursuits.

Maria made only one request in return for her remarkable gift: she asked for an inscribed panel in memory of her husband near the wing’s entrance. Her loving tribute remains there today.

No Armor against Fate!

Black and white photo portrait of a woman in the 19th century
Elizabeth Chapman Lawrence

Elizabeth Lawrence (1829–1905) gave the largest financial contribution toward the creation of the MFA. In 1872 she pledged $25,000 to the building fund, equivalent to more than $600,000 today. Her gift was the leading example of generosity, nearly double the size of any other to the fund.

Born and raised in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, Elizabeth married Col. Timothy Bigelow Lawrence, diplomat and scion of the Massachusetts textile manufacturing family, in 1854. During his years as a diplomat in Europe, Timothy assembled a collection of medieval arms and armor and donated it to the Boston Athenaeum in 1869. The overcrowded Athenaeum had no room to house the collection, inspiring civic leaders to join together and create an institution expressly for the exhibition of art. In February 1870 the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, was incorporated.

Elizabeth agreed that her husband’s collection could go to the MFA on long-term loan, a centerpiece for the new Museum. Sadly, in November 1872, the year she gave her generous gift to the building fund, the Great Boston Fire destroyed 776 buildings across 65 acres of downtown Boston, including the warehouse where almost all the Lawrence collection was stored. When Elizabeth found out about the loss of the collection, she reaffirmed her financial commitment to the MFA even though her husband’s treasured objects would never be exhibited there. She said, simply, “there is no armor against fate!”

This Magnificent Gift

Portrait of a woman in a dress
Harriet White Bradbury

When Harriet Bradbury (1851–1930) passed away, she left many generous bequests to the community, including a remarkable one to the MFA. In 1932 the Museum received a gift of $4.2 million, equivalent to more than $95 million today, from her estate. Mrs. Bradbury’s bequest, described as “this magnificent gift” by the MFA’s president at the time, was one of the largest donations ever given to the Museum.

Harriet White and her siblings spent their early years in rural Massachusetts. When their father, John, died serving in the Union Army, the family moved to Boston, where the eldest child, George, found work as a clerk for a drug company.

By age 26 George was a partner in the firm, which he then grew into one of the largest drug and chemical companies in the nation. He was also a prolific real estate investor. In 1873 Harriet married a bank clerk, Frederick Bradbury. The couple had no children, and George, who was unmarried, lived with them throughout his life. The family enjoyed the fruits of George’s financial success, with a grand home in Boston and a luxurious mansion in Manchester-by-the-Sea. The siblings were art collectors, and George was an MFA trustee.

As they had no direct heirs, George and Harriet spent years planning how their estate would benefit a variety of causes they supported. After George’s death, bequests were made to many local charities, including the MFA. The majority of George’s estate was left in trust for his sister. Anthony van Dyck’s portrait Isabella, Lady de La Warr, pictured below, was purchased with funds from Harriet’s bequest.

A woman with curly brown hair wearing precious jewelry poses for a portrait in a silvery-white dress adorned with lace and jewels.
Anthony van Dyck, Isabella, Lady de La Warr, about 1638. Oil on canvas. Harriet J. Bradbury Fund.

Maureen Melton is Susan Morse Hilles Director of Archives and Museum Historian.