Detroit Institute of Arts
The Detroit Institute of Arts, founded in 1885, opened at its present site in 1927. The museum had begun to build it’s collection through purchase and gift – most notably a collection of old masters given by the publishing magnate, James A. Scripps – but moved into a different mode with the appointment of the German-born scholar, William Valentiner as consultant in 1920, director in 1925. With the wealth of a booming city and the fortunes of some of the richest people in the world, between 1920 and 1930, Valentiner transformed the DIA from the status of respectable Midwestern art museums into one of the greatest collections in the Western hemisphere. Although he was a Rembrandt specialist, he had broad taste and early acqusitions included paintings by Van Gogh and Matisse (the first works by these artists to enter an American museum), the Chinese scroll, Early Autumn, Giovanni Bellini’s Madonna and Child and Pieter Breugel’s Wedding Dance. Valentiner also worked closely with such individuals as Edsel B. Ford and Robert H. Tannahill as they compiled their collections – collections that would eventually come to the DIA. The Ford collection included signature works by Fra Angelico, Titian, Perugino and Van Gogh. Tannahill’s collection was focused on early Modern art and included works by Cezanne, Renoir, Dix, and Beckman but also featured paintings by Chardin and Ingres. Over eight months in 1932 and 33, Mexican artist Diego Rivera created the Detroit Industry murals in what is now known as the Rivera Court. The work consists of 27 frescoes that depict industry at the Ford Motor Company and in Detroit. Rivera considered it to be his finest work and it is now designated as a National Historic Landmark.
In 1945, Valentiner was succeeded by Edgar P. Richardson who proceeded to do for American Art what Valentiner had done for European. Self-taught, Richardson had become a leading authority on American Art at a time when – unbelievable though it may seem today – the art of this country was greatly undervalued. Through his pioneering efforts the DIA put together what remains today one of the finest collections of its kind in the world. Perhaps most remarkably, for the best part of half a century, the City of Detroit annually set aside funds for art acquisition that, as well as several of the works mentioned above, included paintings by Van Eyck and Rembrandt.
In 1971, the bequest of Anna Thomson Dodge’s collection of 18th-century European paintings, sculpture and decorative arts transformed this area of the collection to one of international standing. It contains rare French pieces made for the Russian imperial family, such as the pair of candelabra for Catherine the Great and an exquisite jewel box for Maria Fedorovna. A gift of money from Eleanor C. Ford in 1976 permitted the DIA to embark upon building a very different kind of collection: African art. Early acquisitions such as the Kongo Nail Figure and the Bamenda Throne were among the works that provided the foundation for a comprehensive, rich collection. Hawkins Ferry’s bequest of his collection of contemporary art in the late 1980s brought works by De Kooning, Kline, Rothko and Newman to an already strong area.
At the same time, thanks to generous bequests of restricted endowments, DIA staff was able to add extraordinary pieces ranging from Frederic Church’s Cotopaxi to Fuseli’s The Nightmare; from Ter Borch’s Lady at her Toilet to Rude’s Departure of the Volunteers (The Marseillaise), a model for the Arc de Triomphe design. Recent acquisitions include paintings by Whistler as well as European and American paintings, sculpture and decorative arts pieces, African, African American, Native American, and Islamic art. The department of Prints, Drawings and Photographs has extensive holdings in European and American work, including such icons as a Michelangelo study for the Sistine Chapel, Sheeler’s photograph Drive Wheels, and Durer’s Apocalypse.
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