Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art
The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art is the oldest public art museum in America. It was founded in 1842 by Daniel Wadsworth (1771-1848), one of America’s first significant patrons of the arts. An amateur artist and architect, he was the son of Jeremiah Wadsworth, a Revolutionary War leader and a wealthy Hartford entrepreneur. In 1794 Daniel Wadsworth married Faith Trumbull, the niece of the renowned American history painter, John Trumbull, a connection that led him to become a major patron of Thomas Cole, the leading figure of the Hudson River School of painting. In its early years the Atheneum’s collection featured well-known scenes from the American Revolution, portraits, the splendid landscape paintings soon inherited from Daniel Wadsworth, along with prints, drawings and decorative objects. The original building, located on Main Street in downtown Hartford, was designed n the Gothic Revival style by Ithiel Town and Alexander Jackson Davis. The initial plan called for a gallery of fine arts, but Wadsworth expanded it to include the Connecticut Historical Society, the Young Men’s Institute, which became the Hartford Public Library, and a National History Society. The resulting cultural center was dedicated to the preservation and presentation of history, literature and art, and was called an “Atheneum” in honor of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom.
The Atheneum soon attracted many significant bequests, the largest and most important of which were from Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt (the widow of Samuel Colt, the industrialist and founder of the famous gun company that bore his name) and the international financier, J. Pierpont Morgan, who was a Hartford native. The Colt collection comprised not only 19th-century American paintings and sculptures but also Samuel Colt’s personal collection of firearms, edged weapons, and armor from around the world. Morgan’s collection focused on ceramics, porcelains, ivories, silver gilt objects, and ancient bronzes.
Devoted entirely to the fine arts since the mid-1950s, the Atheneum now contains nearly 50,000 objects in five contiguous buildings, the most historically significant of which, beyond the original Town and Davis castle, is the Avery Memorial wing, designed by the Atheneum’s first professionally trained director, the remarkable impressario – connoisseur, Arthur Everett (Chick) Austin Jr., Austin in 1927 at the ripe age of 26 after graduating in art history at Harvard where he was a teaching assistant. He held the post until 1944. The building he designed with the New York architectural firm of Morris & O’Connor boasted one of the first International Style interiors in the nation. Austin also oversaw the construction of Avery Theater (now Aetna Theater) which was one of the first theaters in an American art museum.
The Wadsworth has a rich tradition of firsts. It was the first American museum to purchase works by Caravaggio, Frederic Church, Salvador Dalí, Joan Miró, Piet Mondrian, Balthus, Joseph Cornell, and many others. It also was the first to focus attention on the Hudson River School, acquiring what is considered one of the finest group of paintings by these artists of any institution in the country. They are the jewel of the museum’s heralded collection of American art, which is also one of the largest in the nation with 600 paintings, 200 sculptures, and 1200 drawings and watercolors by over 400 artists. The museum likewise claims one of the country’s most extensive collections of Southern Baroque art. And it is home to the largest and most comprehensive collection of early American furniture thanks to Wallace Nutting’s holdings of this material that was purchased for the Wadsworth in 1926 by J. P. Morgan, Jr.
Austin was responsible for many of the museum’s firsts. He mounted the first exhibition of Italian Baroque paintings in America, which opened at the Atheneum in 1930. That was immediately followed in 1931 by the first exhibition of Surrealism to be held in this country. Two years later, Austin and Lincoln Kirstein convinced the Atheneum to sponsor George Balanchine’s immigration to America. Austin was rewarded in 1934 when the Wadsworth became the site of the first public American performance by Balanchine’s new ballet company, then the American Ballet, now the New York City Ballet, one of the nation’s most revered troupes. Also in 1934, the museum mounted the first major Picasso retrospective in America and it hosted the world premiere of Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein’s opera, Four Saints in Three Acts. Many leading cultural figures came to speak or perform at the Atheneum during Austin’s directorship, including Stein and Thomson, Dali, Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Agnes de Mille, and Martha Graham. Alfred Barr, the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York therefore was correct when he told Austin, “You did things sooner and more brilliantly than anyone.”
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