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Mapping Cultural Philanthropy

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Samuel H. Kress and Rush H. Kress

Samuel H. Kress
Leopold Seyffert, Portrait of Samuel Henry Kress, 1953. National Gallery of Art, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1953.2.3.

Samuel Henry Kress (1863–1955) was the second of seven children descended from German and Irish immigrants. Born in Cherryville, Pennsylvania, he worked his way up from his rural hometown to become one of the most successful businessmen of his era. He founded and oversaw the S. H. Kress & Co. five-and-ten-cent store chain that offered “affordable, durable and cheerful domestic merchandise.”“The Kress Legacy,” (accessed August 11, 2017). Unless noted otherwise, the narrative that follows is based on this source. Over time, Kress created an architectural division for his retail empire that maintained stringent standards for the design and decoration of his stores, emphasizing grandeur and opulence.

Kress’s early collecting life mirrored his experience in the bulk consumer goods trade. Kress bought large numbers of pictures en bloc and at bargain prices with a singular goal in mind: the creation of an encyclopedic collection of Italian Renaissance paintings. From the purchase of his first painting in 1927 until his last in 1955, Kress was guided by his desire to create that collection, hoping to ensure it would contain at least one work by every painter mentioned in Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. The Kress Collection ultimately comprised more than three thousand artworks.

Rush H. Kress
Leopold Seyffert, Portrait of Rush Harrison Kress, 1953. National Gallery of Art, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1961.9.93.

In 1929, two years after Kress purchased his first painting, he founded the Samuel H. Kress Foundation along with his brothers, Rush H. Kress (1877–1963) and Claude W. Kress (1876–1940). According to its charter, the foundation sought to “promote the moral, physical, and mental well-being and progress of the human races” by devoting its resources to programs related to “the appreciation, interpretation, preservation, study and teaching of European art.” The foundation’s activities were focused in two related areas: the collection and dissemination of great works of European art to American art museums—a pursuit that Kress himself took up during his lifetime—and the nurturing of professional expertise in art history and art conservation. Throughout the Great Depression of the 1930s, Kress routinely gifted single pictures to regional museums and educational institutions in cities across the United States, fostering local pride and often providing the only Old Master paintings in the city. He expanded this outreach with a traveling exhibition of fifty-five of his best Renaissance artworks, a popular endeavor that began at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1932 and ended in 1935 at the Mint Museum of Art in Charlotte, North Carolina. It was Kress’s strong belief that great works of art could enrich life and that this enrichment should be available to everyone—not just to the educated or those who lived in wealthy, coastal cities.“The Samuel H. Kress Foundation Archive.”

In 1939, two years after Andrew Mellon’s death, Samuel Kress and his foundation donated the Kress Collection to the not-yet-completed National Gallery of Art, the first major addition to the gallery’s inaugural collection.“Highlights of the History of the National Gallery of Art.” Kress’s collection of mostly Italian paintings, sculptures, drawings, and medals was extensive, but some of the artworks were not of the quality and condition that was required by the stipulations of the Andrew Mellon bequest. Special arrangements made with Samuel Kress allowed the National Gallery to deaccession those artworks that were deemed not worthy of being part in the gallery’s collection.Wheelock Jr.

In 1945, Samuel Kress suffered an incapacitating stroke at the age of eighty-two, and his brother Rush assumed responsibility for the Kress Foundation. Rush Kress and the foundation broadened the scope of the Kress Collection by acquiring Flemish, Spanish, and Dutch paintings as well as Italian paintings and sculpture. Under Rush Kress’s leadership, the foundation’s collecting was newly motivated by the understanding that the part of the collection not accessioned by the National Gallery would be distributed to museums and galleries throughout the United States.“The Samuel H. Kress Foundation Archive.” The distribution of the Kress Collection began in 1955, the year of Samuel Kress’ death, and continued until 1961, in what Life magazine called “The Great Kress Give-Away.”“The Great Kress Give-Away,” Life (November 16, 1953), 147. The total of the Kress Collection at the National Gallery and in regional and university museums throughout the United States is approximately 31,000 artworks.

Profile by Noah Houghton, 2017 summer intern.