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Mr. Wadsworth’s Museum

June 2024
4min read

For 150 years a crenelated Gothic Revival castle in Connecticut has housed an art collection that was astonishing for its time—and ours

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.


All hummed along solidly, correctly, and inconspicuously until the annus mirabilis of 1927, when, as the Atheneum’s archivist, Eusene R. Gaddis, writes in a forthcoming history of the mu- *5 seum, “Lindbergh flew the Atlantic, sound came to the movies, and A. Everett Austin, Jr., was named director of the Wadsworth Atheneum.” Austin, known as Chick, was a twenty-six-year-old Harvard graduate who had already made a reputation as one of the most formidable connoisseurs of his generation. He could also paint, act, design sets, costumes, and houses, and perform magic tricks.

Austin possessed not only an extraordinary eye but a bloodhound’s nose for the offbeat, affordable masterwork that happened to be underappreciated or out of vogue. When the baroque was considered decadent, he embraced it; in 1930 he organized the first exhibition of Italian baroque art in America and, as a follow-up, began buying an extraordinary group of seventeenth-century paintings. A year later Austin staged the first surrealist show in America, and in 1934 he mounted the inaugural Picasso retrospective on this side of the Atlantic. Preternaturally ahead of everyone else, Austin was the first American museum director to purchase works by DaIi, Mondrian, and Caravaggio.


“Chick,” in the composer Virgil Thomson’s words, “was a whole cultural movement in one man,” as he introduced film, dance, music, and theater to the Atheneum. In 1933 he received a letter from Lincoln Kirstein saying he’d “stake my life on [the] talent” of a young dancer he had seen. Austin persuaded the museum’s trustees to bring George Balanchine to the United States to open a school in Hartford. It didn’t last very long, but the museum’s initial sponsorship helped shape the future of dance in America. The most famous event of Austin’s entire career was the 1934 première in the museum’s theater of Four Saints in Three Acts —a collaboration between Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein.

After Austin left the Atheneum in 1945, the glory days were never duplicated. But the museum’s most recent directors, Tracy Atkinson and Patrick McCaughey, have followed Austin’s policy of pursuing neglected artists and genres. In particular they have collected and exhibited art by African-Americans. In 1989 the museum became custodian of the Simpson Collection, which consists of more than six thousand paintings, prints, sculptures, photographs, books, and manuscripts documenting three centuries of black life. “I would be horrified,” McCaughey recently said, “if the Atheneum’s view of American art stayed fixed in aspic, if people only thought of us for the Colonial Revival and the Hudson River school.”

McCaughey’s words seem to echo Chick Austin’s own views on keeping a museum vital. “We must have the great things of the past to enjoy and study,” Austin wrote, “but with that valuable experience and pleasure as guide and criterion, we must surely seek to live in the present and to try to create the new forms which are to be our legacy to the future.” Daniel Wadsworth could hardly quarrel with that.

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