Quincy Adams Shaw: Jamaica Plain Art Collectorm

If Francis Parkman (the only Jamaica Plain resident ever to be featured on a postage stamp) is nationally known because of his life’s work on the struggle of England and France in America, his cousin through his father, Quincy Adams Shaw, cannot be far behind. In his earliest work, Oregon Trail, Parkman put his journal about a trip he took with Shaw in 1846 after college in book form. The reader sees not only “Shaw and I” on many pages but also Quincy Adams Shaw on the dedication page.

Brother of Robert Gould Shaw, renowned commander of the all-black Massachusetts 54th Infantry (portrayed in the film Glory), Quincy Adams Shaw was born in the Parkman home in Bowdoin Square in February, 1825. A member of the Harvard Class of 1845, he left the East the next spring “on a tour of curiosity and amusement to the Rocky mountains.” His father, a wealthy Boston merchant, allowed him another trip?the Grand Tour of the last century to Europe and the Near East, written up by his companion, George Curtis.

On returning to Paris, where his married sister Anna lived, Quincy decided to stay for seven years (1851-58). There he met Parisian society and, in particular, the naturalistic Barbizon artist Jean-Francois Millet, whose work he would later introduce to Boston. Quincy began collecting French painting in 1860, but did not purchase from Millet until a third trip to Paris in 1874. He then pursued Millet’s work to create the largest Millet collection?now at the Museum of Fine Arts, which he helped to start.

During the 1850’s Quincy Adams Shaw began investing his inherited money in copper mines in Michigan and ended up organizing the Calumet Mining Co. there.

Thus began his lifelong business managing the finances of that company and several other Michigan copper mines as well. A firm believer in the Brahmin concept of getting and giving, Quincy Adams Shaw aided many educational and charitable causes. To Harvard’s burgeoning science schools he gave $100,000 for the Museum of Comparative Zoology in 1874 and he happily funded his extraordinary wife’s educational enterprises.

He had married Pauline Agassiz, daughter of renowned naturalist, Louis Agassiz (for whom Jamaica Plain’s chief primary school was named) in 1860 two years after his return from Paris. After a short stay on Beacon Hill the Shaws built the still-standing house in the current Cabot Estate Condominiums in 1862 and set up house. Five children were born, including another Quincy Adams and Robert Gould. The son of the same name succeeded to the copper mines and died in 1960.

Quincy Adams Shaw, sometimes titled Boston’s largest individual taxpayer of the day, finally acquired 54 of Millet’s paintings, pastels and etchings. When 29 were donated to his beloved Museum of Fine Arts after his death in 1908, along with 19 pieces of Italian Renaissance sculpture, they were featured in a memorial exhibit a decade later. It was noted that Quincy Adams Shaw sat quietly in his rooms enjoying his picture-covered walls but loaned them out when he left town.

Shaw was a maverick in Boston society, living a quiet style that few could copy. He stayed behind the scenes as a man of incorruptible integrity with a genial and attractive personality free from any haughtiness and pomp. He was a distinguished and honored figure in every circle in which he moved. We remain in his debt, as his Millets can easily be seen on any visit to the MFA.

Shaw died quietly in his Jamaica Pond mansion in June, 1908. His wife followed him nine years later as American involvement in World War I began. They are buried on Eliot Hill in Forest Hills Cemetery near the John Eliot Memorial. After the armistice in 1918 the Shaw home was sold to the Sam Cabots, a name that older residents of Jamaica Plain will recall.

National Cyclopedia of Biography.
MFA, Millet Exhibit Catalogue, 1984.
MFA, The S. A. Shaw Collection, 1918.
MFA, The Great Boston Collectors, 1984.

This article originally appeared in the January 31, 1992 issue of the Jamaica Plain Gazette. It is used with permission.

Note by Jamaica Plain Historical Society: Quincy Adams Shaw was the cousin of Col. Robert Gould Shaw, commander of the famed MA 54th Regiment during the Civil War. Quincy Adams Shaw’s father was also named Robert Gould Shaw, he was the young colonel’s namesake.

Editorial Note: A search of the Museum of Fine Arts Collections using the ‘Provenance' filter reveals the many items donated by the family.