Profile - Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art

Since 1842, America's oldest public art museum.
Hartford art patron Daniel Wadsworth (1771-1848) founded the Wadsworth Atheneum to share the wonders of art with the public. In the mid-nineteenth century, average citizens had little if no exposure to fine art, antiquities, or beautiful objects. Only the very wealthy purchased paintings or decorative arts, and then only for their own enjoyment. Thus, Wadsworth's generous gesture was an exciting turn of events that raised the cultural fortunes of an entire community.

Wadsworth almost immediately expanded his plan for a fine arts gallery to include a Connecticut Historical Society and the Young Men's Institute, precursor of the Hartford Public Library. The resulting cultural center was dedicated to the preservation and presentation of history, literature, and art, and was named "Atheneum" in honor of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom.

The Atheneum first featured works collected by Wadsworth and later bolstered its holdings with large bequests from other Hartford notables such as Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt (the wife of Samuel Colt), and J. Pierpont Morgan.

The Wadsworth has a rich tradition of firsts, leading the way in art collecting and embracing new art movements. It was the first American museum to acquire works by Caravaggio, Frederic Church, Salvador Dalí, Joan Miró, Piet Mondrian, Balthus, Joseph Cornell, and many others. Today our Hudson River School landscapes, Old Master paintings, modernist masterpieces, Meissen and Sevres porcelains, early American furniture and decorative arts, and MATRIX contemporary art shows are world-renowned.

Beginning in 1927 under Director A. Everett ("Chick") Austin, Jr., the Atheneum became a mecca for innovation and experimentation. Austin created one of the most important collections of Baroque art in America and gave the museum a national reputation for artistic leadership and daring.

In 1931, the museum held the first exhibition of Surrealism in America. In 1933, it sponsored George Balanchine's immigration to America, and the next year held the first American performance by Balanchine's new ballet company (now the New York City Ballet). Also in 1934, the museum mounted the first major Picasso retrospective in America and hosted the world premiere of Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson's opera, Four Saints in Three Acts. Stein and Thomson, Salvador Dali, Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Agnes de Mille, and Martha Graham all appeared at the museum during the Austin era.

Today, the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art remains at the vanguard of art collecting and exhibiting. Its MATRIX Gallery shows feature innovative artistic statements in the latest art media.

The Atheneum presents more than fifteen special shows each year. Many are inspired by masterworks in the museum's holdings, while others are solo shows by emerging artists.



< back to Museum's profile