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.
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.
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.
“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