Mr. Wadsworth’s Museum

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We tend to identify the first American public display of art with the post-Civil War surge of wealth called the Gilded Age. Conventional wisdom also assumes that our first art museums were born in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia—all of which were eager to assert their cultural hegemony.

But the nation’s oldest public art gallery confounds these expectations. The Wadsworth Atheneum was founded in 1842—not only before the Civil War but well before the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Moreover, the home of this pioneering institution was a small Connecticut city without the population or artistic ferment of its rivals, but the Atheneum’s founders played the provincial card shrewdly. In 1844, for example, the infant museum was eager to secure Thomas Cole’s Mt. Etna from Taormina , and the artist was wondering if it wouldn’t be better for him to place such an important painting in Philadelphia. Cole accepted the Atheneum’s offer after a trustee wrote persuasively, “A respectable Gallery will be a much greater lion in Hartford than in a large city.”

 

This has always been the thinking of the Atheneum. Turning 150 this year and forty thousand objects strong, the Atheneum from the outset recognized and valued American art even while fashion dictated that right-thinking connoisseurs should look only toward Europe.

The Atheneum’s founder was Daniel Wadsworth (1771–1848), an amateur artist and architect who enjoyed the wealth amassed by his father, a Hartford merchant. At twenty-three Daniel Wadsworth married Faith Trumbull, the niece of John Trumbull, America’s foremost painter of the Revolution’s battles and heroes. Before long he embarked on a career as an art patron and collector. With Trumbull as his guide, he took the highly unusual path for that time of promoting American painting, and his most prescient purchases were of contemporary art. This paid especial dividends in 1825, when Trumbull and his artist friends Asher B. Durand and William Dunlap discovered a gifted twenty-four-year-old named Thomas Cole. Wadsworth promptly commissioned six works by the young man who would become the founder of the Hudson River school and the pre-eminent American landscape artist of his time. His canvases, as well as others acquired later, formed the basis of the Atheneurn’s excellent anthology of nineteenth-century landscapes.

Wadsworth later recommended that Cole accept a Hartford youth named Frederic Edwin Church as a student. Church spent the next two years as Cole’s only pupil in the artist’s studio in Catskill, New York, an outstanding preparation for his mature career. Not surprisingly, Church’s first recorded sale was to the Atheneum, in 1846.

In 1840 a Hartford art gallery closed and left a void in the city’s cultural life. This event, plus the approach of Wadsworth’s seventieth birthday, evidently led him to see to the incorporation of his museum in 1842. Besides donating most of his personal collection, Wadsworth acquired approximately fifty paintings from the defunct New York Academy of Fine Arts. Two years later, on July 31, 1844, the Atheneum opened to the public in a two-story Gothic Revival castle of Connecticut granite. Visitors paid a stiff twenty-five cents to see eighty-two works of art, including Revolutionary War scenes by Trumbull, Cole’s landscapes, and a portrait of Benjamin West by Sir Thomas Lawrence.

 

After Wadsworth’s death, in 1848, the museum went into a decline. One artist remembered the gallery as “a sepulchral chamber” choked by an overpowering odor of must. Then, in the 188Os, two prominent citizens took an interest in the Atheneum and transformed its fortunes. The first was Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt. The widow of the arms manufacturer Samuel Colt was a strong supporter of American artists, and the walls of her mansion were lined with canvases by Church, Cole, Bierstadt, and Kensett. Many of these paintings, as well as sculpture, glass, jewelry, ceramics, firearms, and funds for an addition to the original building, came to the Atheneum upon her death in 1905.

 

The second great benefactor was the Reverend Francis Goodwin, an Episcopal clergyman from one of Hartford’s oldest families. For Goodwin, civic improvement was a moral obligation, and he was determined to revive Wadsworth’s legacy. He turned for help to his first cousin J. Pierpont Morgan, whose father had lived in Hartford. Both father and son felt a strong loyalty toward the city, and they donated an initial $150,000. Later Pierpont Morgan pledged $500,000 toward another building, and after his death in 1913, 1,325 objects from his eclectic collections of classical bronzes, Renaissance majolica, and eighteenth-century porcelains went to Hartford. These massive infusions of cash and art, followed by further gifts and bequests from the local citizenry, elevated the Atheneum’s standing beyond that of a regional museum.