Samuel Kress didn’t invent the 5-and-10-cent store concept — that distinction goes to Kress’s contemporary and competitor F. W. Woolworth — but his S.H. Kress and Co. shops and department stores, particularly during the lean years of the Great Depression, for decades served as the default shopping venue for millions of cost-conscious Americans.
As Kress’s stores prospered, so did their workaholic founder. Like the merchant princes of old, Kress used his prodigious income to acquire an impressive collection of beautiful things, in his case paintings and sculptures by masters of the Italian Renaissance. Unlike so many art-collecting titans, however, Kress wasn’t satisfied to keep these sublime purchases to himself. During his lifetime — and via his foundation after his death — Kress gave hundreds of Old Master paintings and other great works to the nation’s museums: masterpieces that, more often than not, formed the core of these museums’ Renaissance and Baroque holdings.
Equally impressive, Kress and his heirs launched a plan by which additional selections of his collection would be donated to a select group of colleges and universities. These “study collection” donations weren’t just meant to inspire fine art students; they were intended to give university communities, as Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren put it during a 1961 ceremony honoring the Kress Foundation, “an insight into values that lie beyond the reach of time.”
And so they have done for the last 50 years here at the University of Missouri, one of the 23 institutions chosen by the Kress Foundation to receive the coveted objects. The works, a selection of which are reproduced on these pages, are on permanent display in MU’s Museum of Art and Archaeology, which is free and open to both MU students and the public. A full-color catalog of the works, with detailed descriptions of each painting, is available from the University of Missouri Press.