The story of George Eastman (1854—1932) is a near-stereotypical tale of “local boy makes good.” Forced at age 14 to drop out of school to support his widowed mother and two sisters, he worked a series of errand and clerical jobs until an encounter with the large, bulky, wet-plate photographic equipment of the day got his inventive juices flowing. He eventually refined and mechanized a dry-plate process that was less cumbersome, and started up a plate manufacturing business. This early venture launched him into a series of innovations in early photography, including the first cameras for amateur use, improvements in roll film and cartridges, and mass market photography through his Eastman Kodak Company.
The extraordinary worldwide success of Eastman Kodak enabled Mr. Eastman to donate large portions of his fortune towards profit-sharing with his employees, the founding of hospitals and dental clinics, and the support of schools both locally and nationally. He also pursued his curtailed education by travelling through Europe and visiting museums and galleries on his own. By 1905 he began to fill his mansion on East Avenue, just a few blocks east of MAG, with a carefully chosen personal collection of prints, drawings, and paintings. Mr. Eastman took advice from art-savvy friends and accommodating dealers who allowed him to take artworks home temporarily, as he insisted that “I never buy a picture until I have lived with it a little while in my house.” In the end, he relied on his own tastes and returned many artworks deemed unsatisfactory.
Upon his death, the terms of Mr. Eastman’s will left the house and his entire art collection to the University of Rochester. The house served as the University president’s home for several years, until it was transferred to a board of trustees for the founding of a photography museum, today the George Eastman Museum. Eastman’s art arrived at MAG in stages over the course of several decades, and artworks on view in the restored house are actually high-quality reproductions.