December 19, 2011
By Mary Jo Gibson
Atheneum; (noun) a sanctuary of Athena at Athens, built by the Roman emperor Hadrian, and frequented by poets and scholars.
It is a pleasant surprise to find a museum that has treasures beyond expectations. A small note on a misplaced research page led me to the wonderful Wadsworth Atheneum. What is an atheneum? The term derives from the nineteenth century, describing a cultural institute with a library, works of art, and artifacts, devoted to history, literature art and science; this institution encompasses that definition.
Hartford art patron Daniel Wadsworth (1771-1848) founded the museum in 1842. He is descended from a family that journeyed on foot from the Massachusetts Bay Colony to found Hartford and the Connecticut Colony. In the mid-nineteenth century, average citizens had little if no exposure to fine art, antiques or beautiful objects. Only the very wealthy purchased paintings or decorative arts for their personal enjoyment. Wadsworth’s generous gesture was an exciting turn of events that raised the cultural fortunes of an entire community.
Setting the museum on the road to greatness happened in 1917; a gift of 1,325 European objects from the collection of J. Pierpont Morgan, one of the country’s most spectacular collectors of art, and a Hartford native; the gift from Morgan’s son and heir, Jack, gave the Wadsworth a giant step forward in the field of European old master art.
Ten years later, a fund was established by Frank C. Sumner, a Hartford banker, for the acquisition of ‘choice’ paintings. This was not the only event of 1927 to change the course of the institution; the appointment of Everett ‘Chick’ Austin, a talented and forward thinking director, who set out to acquire a series of acknowledged and unquestionable art masterpieces. Under his direction, the Wadsworth was the first museum to acquire works by Frederic Church, Salvador Dali, Miro, Piet Mondrian, Balthus and many others. In 1931, the museum held the first exhibition of Surrealism in American; in 1933 the Institute sponsored George Balanchine’s immigration to this country. The first Picasso retrospective came in 1934, and the Wadsworth hosted the world premiere of Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson’s opera, ‘Four Saints in Three Acts’. Austin purchased the first Caravaggio by an American museum for the small price of $17,000 in 1943, ”The Ecstasy of St. Francis‘.
This collection of nearly 50,000 works of art span 5,000 years featuring the antiquities of Greece and Rome; European decorative arts; baroque and surrealist paintings. Throughout its history, the Wadsworth has reflected America’s cultural revolution and on many occasions has been the vanguard of that evolution. The institution also features lectures, and seminar classes to compliment current exhibitions and collections, with a library and archive that are useful tools in studying art history.
The on line exhibit is limited, but many unique treasures await the virtual tourist. I have included some choice pieces in the slideshow, and look forward to a future look at their past exhibitions. Such a storied history and immense collection cannot be covered in one Museum Monday. I look forward to returning to the Wadsworth Atheneum in the New Year.
A new Cabinet of Curiosities will be coming this Friday, and I believe the Clark Institute will be the next museum the following Monday. Enjoy the holidays!