The Story of Dr. George Fisk Comfort
George Fisk Comfort was born in Berkshire, New York on September 20, 1833. He was one of 8 children born to father, Silas Gildersleeve Comfort, and mother, Electra Smith Comfort. His father was a Methodist preacher, writer, and abolitionist and travelled extensively around the United States assigned to different church congregations. Electra died in 1861, and Silas remarried Sara Ann Foster and had two more children. Both Silas and Sara died in 1868.
From these humble beginnings, George Fisk Comfort travelled abroad and studied art, philosophy, and languages. He graduated from Wesleyan University in Connecticut obtaining Bachelors and Masters degrees of Liberal Arts in 1857 and 1860 respectively. After graduation, he continued his travels and studies in Europe until 1865, when he returned to America.
Following is an excerpt of a long letter written by George (aged 29) while in Florence, Italy, to a friend in America. This discusses his concerns about the ongoing Civil War and the survival of Democracy in America as the whole world was watching.
The letter is dated April 22, 1862
… They [Italians in Florence] think that America is in danger of going overboard and they have no notion of trying a democratic experiment if ours proves to be a failure. So you see the great war we are fighting in America has a powerful influence at a great distance and in fact, the fate of many nations besides our own depends upon the issue of our great struggle.
If the Union is preserved, there will probably be a dozen new republics in the world within as many years. If it is destroyed, monarchies will keep the upper hand for a hundred years to come to say the least. So you see that if it should cost us a dozen battles like the last one at Corinth [Shiloh], with fifty-eight thousand slain as the papers have it, a dozen nations will rise up in the future and call us blessed. This is the “sunny side” of our dreadful war. The shady side is the vast number of lives sacrificed, of property destroyed, of impoverished families, the mourning widows, parents, & children that will fill our beloved country for a generation to come. It costs great sacrifices, no doubt—so did the Revolution. But as I have often told the Italians what costs little is generally worth little & what is worth much, we have to pay high prices for.
From 1865 to 1868, George was a professor of languages at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania. At 35 years of age, George took custody of his half-brother and half-sister after the death of his father and moved to New York City. In 1871, he married Anna Amelia Manning.
Anna Manning, M.D., was part of the first class and youngest woman to graduate from New York Medical School for Women. She was the first woman to set up a medical practice in Connecticut. She was a promoter of Women’s suffrage and a prominent gynecologist.
Together George and Anna raised their own two sons and George’s half-brother and half-sister. In 1869, George founded the American Philological Association which is the study of the history of languages. In that same year, he gave the main address at the Union League Club for citizens interested in starting an art museum in New York City that could rival the museums of Europe. This meeting was the origin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He published a book, Art Museums in America in 1870. This book outlined his vision for museums and museum education. He was the founder and original trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art until 1873. In 1872, the Comfort family moved to Syracuse, New York.
In 1873, George Fisk Comfort was Dean and founder of the College of Fine Arts at the newly established Syracuse University. In 1891, he was elected president of the Southern College of Fine Arts in LaPorte, Texas.
In 1896, he founded the Everson Museum of Art at Syracuse. Under the leadership of George Comfort, the museum developed the first regular educational program in a museum in America. In 1888, George was awarded an L.H.D. from the University of the State of New York. In 1893, an LL.D. was awarded by Syracuse University.
George Fisk Comfort died unexpectedly of a combination of exhaustion and food poisoning on May 5, 1910, at the age of 77. He is buried in Oakwood Cemetery next to Syracuse University. A small, non-descript stone marks his grave.
Since the death of George’s son, Ralph, in 1954, Syracuse University Archives holds the vast collection (20 boxes) of the Comfort family documents, letters, publications, and photos. Among the effects of George Comfort are letters to and from President Andrew Johnson, Melville Dewey, Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, and Thomas Moran.
To this day, Syracuse University has a George Fisk Comfort Society which is a graduate student organization for M.A. programs in Art History.
Rutgers University lists George Fisk Comfort in their database of Classical Scholars.
Following are two photographs of George Fisk Comfort, the first taken around 1863, and the last around 1893.