June 1: America’s First Public Art Museum


Today in 1842, Connecticut Governor Chauncey Cleveland signed an act formally incorporating the Wadsworth Atheneum, creating the first public art museum in the United States. Construction immediately began on the iconic, castle-like building in Hartford that remains the centerpiece and most recognizable feature of the Atheneum campus, and the institution officially opened 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, Revolutionary War Commissary General Jeremiah Wadsworth, Daniel sought to use his family’s wealth and influence to enhance the quality of life of his native state. He spent years acquiring paintings by notable American artists such as John Trumbull, Frederic Edwin Church, and Thomas Cole, which would he displayed as models of American artistic accomplishment.

But Wadsworth’s institution was also intended to serve as more than a fine arts gallery. In a nod to the neo-classical trends of the early 19th century, Wadsworth referred to his project as an “atheneum,” a Greek word that denoted an institution devoted to the study and appreciation of arts, literature, and natural science.

The castle-like shape of the original 1844 Wadsworth Atheneum Building hearkened back to both its European cultural inheritance and its role as a fortress of American culture.

So, when the Atheneum first opened in 1844, its art galleries contained a total of 79 paintings and three sculptures. But the castle-like building also served as the new home to the Connecticut Historical Society (established in 1825) and a literary institute that would later become the Hartford Public Library. The Atheneum immediately became a landmark cultural icon for Hartford, Connecticut, and the new nation. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, its collections and architectural footprint grew substantially as the Wadsworth attracted donations and patronage from notable collectors such as 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 numbers in its holdings 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