According to Merriam-Webster, the word ‘atheneum’ means a building or room in which books, periodicals and newspapers are kept for use. The Greeks included ‘arts’ in their definition, as well. So if you connect both definitions, the word aptly describes the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Arts.
Construction began in 1842, under the design brilliance of Alexander Jackson Davis and Ithiel Town. The oldest continually running museum in the country, the Atheneum is built on the original site of Daniel Wadsworth’s home in downtown Hartford, Conn. Being an ‘old’ and wealthy family, it only made sense that the Wadsworths would make the first major contributions to the institution (78 paintings, two marble busts, one portrait miniature and a bronze sculpture). Fast-forward to today, and the collection now more than 50,000 works of art that span 5,000 years, with some pieces dating to Greek and Roman times.
Very wealthy donors have followed the generosity of the Wadsworths and have, over time, made major contributions to the collection. The Goodwin and Morgan families began a four-year campaign in 1889 for renovation and expansion. Samuel Colt’s widow, Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt, left 1,000-plus items to the museum, which included the couple’s extensive Hudson River artists collection, not to mention the vast firearm collection that they held.
How wonderful to have J. Pierpont Morgan as a native son! Gifts from the Morgan family in the early 1900s include ancient bronzes, majolica, ivories, silver gilt, Meissen, Sevres and the Wallace Nutting collection of American ‘Pilgrim Century’ furniture and decorative arts.
Frank Sumner established a fund in memory of his wife and sister-in-law in 1927. The timing of this fund was ideal as the museum hired its first director, A. Everett ‘Chick’ Austin Jr. At a sage age of 26, Chick became the museum’s first leader and held the position for 17 years.
It was a combination of Sumner’s money and Austin’s vision that enabled the Atheneum to be the first museum in America to bring in such artists as Caravaggio, Miro, Mondrian, Balthus, Harnett, Cornell, and Dali. These resulted in the first Baroque and Surrealist shows, as well as the first Picasso retrospective in the United States.
Austin and his wife, Helen, hosted many events at their home in Hartford. Their classically designed manor was inspired by homes the couple had seen in Italy, and has hosted the likes of Gertrude Stein, Agnes de Mille, Salvador Dali, Alexander Calder, Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius and Virgil Thomson. Clearly, it was Austin’s vision that put the Atheneum on the map. In 1985, his widow and children donated the house to the museum.
The Wadsworth Atheneum exists today because of a family’s desire to leave something for their community, as well as leadership and staff who work tirelessly to preserve and expand its collection, and of course, a public that yearns to stretch their experience of knowledge related to the arts. For more information, visit thewadsworth.org.