While American art has been collected by the Museum since its inception, the art of this nation was first acquired in earnest during the pioneering directorship of Frank Jewett Mather Jr. (1922–1946), at a time when few institutions accorded it significance. As a result, Princeton’s collection of historical American art is among the finest of any academic museum. Long focused on painting and sculpture, the collection is particularly strong in portraiture, augmented by the University’s own distinguished collection of individuals affiliated with the institution, and landscape painting, the product of noteworthy gifts of Hudson River School and later canvases by several, mostly alumni, collectors.

Much of the esteemed Boudinot Collection of largely 18th-century fine and decorative art associated with that historic family is displayed nearby at Morven Museum and Garden, the Princeton seat of the related Stockton family. Folk art offers another area of distinction, due substantially to the donation of alumnus Edward Duff Balken’s important collection of such material. New acquisitions, enhanced by the institution of a dedicated fund for the purchase of American works, have recently included notable African American, modernist, still life, marine, and genre paintings.

The American Portrait interactive explores John Singleton Copley’s portrait of Elkanah Watson.