June 1: The Nation’s Oldest Public Art Museum Established

 

On this day in 1842, Connecticut governor Chauncey Cleveland signed an act formally incorporating the Wadsworth Atheneum, creating what would become the first and oldest continuously operating public art museum in the United States.  Construction immediately began on the iconic, castle-like building that remains the centerpiece and most recognizable feature of the Atheneum campus, and the institution officially opened to the public two years later, in 1844.

Jeremiah Wadsworth (seated) and his son Daniel, by John Trumbull (1784).

The establishment of the Atheneum marked the fulfillment of a lifelong dream of Daniel Wadsworth, its benefactor and namesake.  As the son of one of Hartford’s most successful 18th century merchants and Revolutionary War hero Jeremiah Wadsworth, Daniel sought to use his family’s wealth and influence to enhance the quality of life of his native Hartford, and spent years acquiring paintings by notable American artists like John Trumbull, Frederic Edwin Church, and Thomas Cole.   Wadsworth’s legacy was destined to become more than a fine arts gallery, however: in a nod to the neo-classical trends of the early 19th century, Wadsworth referred to his project as an “atheneum,” a Greek word denoting an institution devoted to the study and appreciation of arts, literature, and natural science.

When the Atheneum first opened in 1844, the art galleries contained a total of seventy-nine paintings and three sculptures.  The castle-like building was also served as the new home to the Connecticut Historical Society (established in 1825) and a literary institute which would later become the Hartford Public Library.  The Atheneum’s collections grew substantially during the late 19th and early 20th century as it attracted donations and patronage from notable Hartford residents like Elizabeth Jarvis Colt (wife of Samuel Colt) and the financier J. P. Morgan.  Today, the Wadsworth Atheneum remains the largest art museum in Connecticut and contains over 50,000 works of art from around the world.

Further Reading

Our History,” Wadsworth Atheneum

Aileen D. Bastos, “The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art,” connecticuthistory.org

Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser, “Daniel Wadsworth and the Hudson River School,” Connecticut Explored