Art Treasures of Washington – The Corcoran Gallery Of Art

Historical Sketch

THE Corcoran Gallery of Art is a monument to the magnanimity, cultivation, and far seeing judgment of its founder, William Wilson Corcoran, a native of Georgetown and a resident of Washing-ton, who, during the course of a long and active life, had amassed great wealth, much of which was spent in the cultivation of the fine arts. His was one of the first of the considerable collections of paintings and sculpture in the United States, and is of especial interest and historical value, since it reflects, to a degree, the flavour of the time at which it was formed. Mr. Corcoran appears from the first to have had faith in the development of the art of his own country; and his private collection, which formed the nucleus of the present gallery, was practically confined to the works of contemporary American painters, while he was careful to stipulate, in making his gift to the nation, that the institution was ” to be used solely for the purpose of encouraging American genius in the production of works pertaining to the fine arts.”

Mr. Corcoran was born at the close of the eighteenth century, on December 27, 1798, and as he lived to be ninety years of age, saw the beginnings of many schools of painting, was contemporary with the early struggles of our first native artists and the patron of many. The recognition of Con-stable, the discovery of the Venus de Milo, the birth and maturity of the Barbison School, the rise of the school of French Impressionists, and many other important and epoch-marking events, in the history of art, occurred not only within the life-time, but within the memory of the philanthropist.

His opportunities as a patron of art and as a col-lector, were marvellous. His life spanned the lives of Millet, Diaz, Troyon, Rousseau, Courbet, Couture, Manet, and Delacroix, and he was but two years younger than Corot and Barye whom he also survived. He had attained mature manhood be-fore the deaths of Stuart and Peale, of our American School of portrait painters, while Sully and Neagle were born and died within his dates.

He lived also in an important period of national history. His birth antedated by two years the removal of the seat of government of the United States to its present situation — until then virgin country. He grew up with Washington, became one of her most flourishing citizens, and by his financial operations, as owner of one of the first banking houses of the city, and by early investments in city lands, which greatly increased in value when Washington became a thriving city, he became a millionaire.

His father, Thomas Corcoran, one of the principal citizens of Georgetown, was a native of Ire-land, and emigrated to America in his youth, settling in Maryland, where, in 1788, he married Hannah Lemmon of Baltimore. He became a prominent business man of Georgetown, and was, at one time, magistrate, and also served as member of the levy court, postmaster, and college trustee.

William Wilson Corcoran, after pursuing classic and mathematical studies in the private schools, and at Georgetown College, engaged in business, at the early age of seventeen, under the direction of two brothers who combined with the dry goods trade, a wholesale auction and commission business, which was carried on successfully until 1823, when, on account of the great financial stringency of the time, it was compelled to suspend.

For thirty-nine years Mr. Corcoran continued to reside in Georgetown, giving his attention to mercantile affairs. In 1828 he took charge of the large real estate held in the District of Columbia by the United States Bank of Washington and the Bank of Columbia, in Georgetown, and after his father’s death, in 183o, devoted himself assiduously to this responsible trust, until 1836.

In 1837 he began business as a banker and broker in Washington, and three years later called into partnership George W. Riggs. In 1845 the firm established itself at the seat of the old United States Bank. It is interesting to note that amongst the first -uses that Mr. Corcoran made of his ac-cumulations was the disbursement of $46,000 in absolute discharge of the debts incurred by his early failure with his brothers, for which a legal compromise had been made in 1823. He paid them all to the uttermost farthing, with interest to the date of settlement.

The firm of Corcoran and Riggs was now strong enough to deal in large enterprises and . acquired a national fame during the Mexican War by taking up the entire loan that was called for by the government in 1847-1848. At one stage its transactions under this head were so bold that Mr. Riggs thought it more prudent to retire from the partnership. Mr. Corcoran now found himself with twelve million of the United States six percent loans on his hands in a falling market, already dropped one percent below the price at which he had taken them up. Nothing daunted, he em-barked at once for London, and there, owing to the faith inspired by his business judgment and honour, he succeeded in enlisting the greatest banking houses of England, in support of a loan that seemed perilous, but which proved a source of great profit to all interested in it, besides bringing relief to the exchanges of the United States.

This negotiation, so creditable to his sagacity, courage and integrity, laid the basis of his own wealth, that came in time to be reckoned in mil-lions.

In 1854 Mr. Corcoran retired from business and devoted himself to the management of his property, and to the disbursement of a very considerable fortune in the furtherance of public works. Colleges, churches, and theological seminaries were included in the list of his varied benefactions, of which the most indicative of the chivalry of his sympathetic nature, is the Louise Home, founded in memory of his wife and daughter, which is re-served to ladies of birth and education, whom the reversal of fortune has left resourceless, and where they are entertained as the founder’s guests.

At the age of seventy-one years Mr. Corcoran carried out his long cherished scheme of establishing, in Washington, an institution ” dedicated to art.” His gift to the city included the original building,1 which still stands at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Seventeenth Street, together with the ground surrounding it; his private collection of paintings and statuary, valued then at about $100,000; and an endowment fund of $900,000.

The erection of the building was begun in 1859, after the design of James Renwick, an architect of considerable reputation in New York, who had distinguished himself by the construction of Grace Church in that city, and who afterwards built St. Patrick’s Cathedral and other New York churches. He also was the architect of the fountain in Union Square, and built Vassar College. In Washington he was known as the architect of the Smithsonian Institute.

Though inside the profession Renwick was es-teemed very highly, in his time, in the light of to-day’s development, his work does not appear scholarly. It was not sufficiently good to command permanent admiration. Neither does it express any particular originality, but is, on the contrary, largely adapted from classic models and possesses most of the faults which characterized the period at which he flourished.

The old Corcoran Gallery — which may be the more freely criticised since it has been replaced by a most beautiful building — is in a style much in vogue at the time of the Centennial, usually de-scribed, in contemporary accounts, as Renaissance architecture, on account of the curb, or modified Mansard roof, and the central and corner pavilions, which, in their purity, form the salient features of the architecture of the sixteenth century; and which, with certain perversions of proportion and so on, were revived to an unfortunate extent in America at about this time.

The combination of red brick with brown stone facings and ornaments was also considered very modish at the time, and the architect, who was fond of the florid, let himself go in the matter of superficial ornament trophies, wreaths of foliage, garlands, finely carved, the monogram of the founder in medallions, repeated in the decoration, and the inscription ” Dedicated to Art,” which surmounted the entrance. Thirteen niches made the tour of the second story, and have since, for the most part, been converted into windows. These were intended for statues of artists, in white marble, and provided for a large commission which fell to an American sculptor, as we shall see further on.

Meanwhile, the outbreak of the Civil War arrested the work of construction, and early in 1861 the government appropriated the building, just as it stood, in the rough, so to speak, for the Quartermaster-General’s Department, retaining it until four years after the close of the war.

The subsequent claim, made by the trustees of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, for compensation for the use, by the government, of the property, referred, by act 0f May 24, 1870, to the Secretary of War, the Secretary of the Treasury and the Secretary of State, throws a very interesting light upon this feature of the usefulness of the building and its importance to the government in time of stress.

The Corcoran Gallery owing to its size, the solidity of its construction, and the fact that it was fire proof, or supposed to be, rendered it especially valuable as a stronghold for government purposes. During the years of the Rebellion, the city was an extensive military encampment. Its streets resounded with the march of troops, and all its available buildings were used for milatiary purposes. Immediately upon the close of the war Mr. Corcoran made efforts to regain possession of his property, but it was not until four years later that the government was able to provide adequate accommodations for the quartermaster’s effects. The actual tenure of the premises by the government was from August 22, 1861, to September 15, 1869, — eight years and twenty-four days, for which the trustees claimed $300,000 indemnity and recovered $125,000 on April 15, 1872.

On the 10th of May, 1869, the property was restored to its owner, who at once placed it in the hands of a board of nine trustees, and we find the deed of gift dated May 18, 1869. The institution was chartered by act of Congress on May 24, 1870.

The trustees, named in the deed of gift, were selected by the donor from amongst his personal friends, and consisted of James M. Carlisle, a well-known lawyer; James C. Hall, a distinguished physician ; George W. Riggs, Mr. Corcoran’s business partner; Anthony Hyde, his confidential agent ; James G. Berrett ; James C. Kennedy ; Henry C. Cooke, former governor of the District ; James C. McGuire, a well known amateur in art, possessed, himself, of a notable collection; and William T. Walters, whose collections covering a wider field of pictures, sculpture, and ob jets d’art, were already attracting considerable attention in Baltimore. All of the trustees, with the exception of Mr. Walters, were residents of Georgetown and Washington.

These gentlemen were made the official recipients of the munificent bequest, or rather, according to the formal wording of the deed, the property was ” bargained and sold, aliened, enfeoffed and conveyed ” to them ” in consideration of the premises and the sum of one dollar current money of the United States.”

After the institution was incorporated, in 1870, the general work of reconstruction and adaptation of the building to its original purpose was begun, and in 1871 was ready for occupancy.

It is important to remember that the completion of the Corcoran Gallery was coincident with a species of regeneration, which possessed the city of Washington at about this time. An exotic, whose situation was the arbitrary selection of our first president, Washington had had no normal growth, but, on the contrary, had been retarded, in every possible way, by jealousy and opposition, as well as frequent threats to remove the capital. The formal transfer of the government from Philadelphia to Washington took place in October, 1800. That it was a day of small things, is evident when one reads that ” a single packet sloop brought all the office furniture of the departments, besides seven large boxes and five small ones, containing the ‘archives’ of the government.” The officials numbered fifty-four persons, including President Adams, the secretaries, and the various clerks. They came to the city by different conveyances, and as they had left pleasant, comfortable quarters in Philadelphia, the crudeness and discomfort of Washington was almost unendurable.

Mrs. Adams spoke of Washington as ” this wilderness city; ” and Secretary Wolcott in a letter to his wife said, ” There are but few houses in any place, and most of them are small, miserable huts, which present ,an awful contrast to the public buildings. The people are poor, and, as far as I can judge, live like fishes, by eating each other.”

The best description extant of the city, as it appeared at the time that the government took possession, is found in a letter written by John Cotton Smith, then a member of Congress from Connecticut. He says : — ” Our approach to the city was accompanied with sensations not easily described. One wing of the Capitol only had been erected, which, with the President’s house, one mile distant from it, both constructed with white sandstone, were shining objects in dismal contrast with the scene around them. Instead of recognizing the avenues and streets, portrayed on the plan of the city, not one was visible, unless we except a road, with two buildings on each side of it, called the New Jersey Avenue. The Pennsylvania Avenue, leading, as laid down on paper, from the Capitol to the Presidential mansion, was nearly the whole distance a deep morass covered with elder bushes, which were cut through to the President’s house : and near Georgetown a block of houses had been erected which bore the name of the ` six buildings.’ . . . The desolate aspect of the place was not a little augmented by a number of unfinished edifices at Greenleaf’s Point, and on an eminence a short distance from it, commenced by an individual, whose name they bore, but the state of whose funds had compelled him to abandon them.

” There appeared to be but two really comfort-able habitations, in all respects, within the bounds of the city, one of which belonged to Dudley Carroll and the other to Notley Young. The roads in every direction were muddy and unimproved. A sidewalk was attempted, in one instance, by a covering formed of the chips hewed for the Capitol. It extended but a little way and was of little value; for in dry weather the sharp fragments cut our shoes, and in wet weather covered them with white mortar. In short, it was a new settlement.”

Such was the capital city in which President Adams, Secretary of State, John Marshall, Secretary of the Treasury, Oliver Wolcott, Jr., Secretary of War, Samuel Dexter, Secretary of the Navy, Benjamin Stoddart, and the other officials of the Government took up their abode in the fall of 1800, twenty-four years after the Declaration of Independence. Congress began its sessions a few weeks later, and many and loud were the complaints, of the new capital, uttered by all the assembled statesmen.

Newspapers in New York, Philadelphia and New England, and satirists everywhere, cracked many amusing jokes at the expense of the infant city. The Capitol was called ” the palace in the wilderness,” and Pennsylvania Avenue ” the great Serbonian Bog.” Georgetown was declared ” a city of houses without streets ” and Washington ” a city of streets without houses.

The Abbé Correa de Serra, the witty Minister from Portugal, bestowed upon Washington the famous title of ” the city of magnificent distances,” referring to the great spaces between the scattered houses; while Thomas Moore, just then coming into prominence as a poet, visited the city in 1804, and contributed to the general fund of humour, at the expense of the unfortunate city, by the composition of this satire :

” In fancy now beneath the twilight gloom, Come, let me lead thee o’er this modern Rome, Where tribunes rule, where dusky Davi bow, And what was Goose Creek is Tiber now.

” This fam’d metropolis, where fancy sees Squares in morasses, obelisks in trees; Which travelling fools and gazetteers adorn With shrines unbuilt, and heroes yet unborn.”

During the administrations of Adams, Jefferson, and Madison the city improved considerably. Jefferson secured money from Congress for the public buildings, planted poplar trees on Pennsylvania Avenue, and did what he could to redeem that thoroughfare from its lamentable condition. He applied his artistic taste and skill to the work of beautifying the city.

The invasion of Washington by the British troops, in 1814, was a severe blow to the weak and slowly growing city. The troops dispersed throughout the city, burning and destroying a large amount of private, as well as public property. While the public buildings were burning a severe storm began, and the drenching rain fortunately extinguished the fires at the Capitol and White House and saved them from total destruction.

During the administration of John Quincy Adams, Washington had ‘a population of nearly twenty thousand, but it was a slow going, uninteresting city, with very few signs of progress.

Even so late as 1840, Monsieur de Bacourt, the French Minister, wrote : ” As for Washington, it is neither a city, nor a village, nor the country : it is a building-yard placed in a desolate spot, wherein living is unbearable.” About this time there was a general renewal of the public buildings, and after 1850 the city began to wear a somewhat brighter and more enterprising aspect.

The Civil War again arrested the hand of progress, and, for a few years after peace was concluded, Washington continued to be an unattractive city: At this time an English tourist wrote of it: ” The whole place looks run up in a night, like the cardboard cities Potemkin erected to gratify the eyes of his imperial mistress, on her tour through Russia ; and it is impossible to remove the impression that, when Congress is over, the place is taken down and packed up till wanted again.”

In the year 1870 Washington was suddenly aroused from its lethargy. After seventy years of existence it had not realized the expectations of its friends, or greatly lessened the opposition of its enemies. The situation was critical. Its use by the Federal soldiers in the Civil War had made thousands of intelligent northern men familiar with its discomforts, its shiftlessness, and its lack of the qualities desirable in the seat of the government of the American Nation.

The project to remove the national capital to St. Louis, vigorously started by a western man of energy and persistency, gave Washington, at this time, a great fright. The proposition of removal received the hearty endorsement of the West, and a large delegation in Congress was pledged to its advocacy. St. Louis was ready to expend millions to obtain the splendid prize, and other large west-ern cities came forward with offers of influence and money, enthusiastic over the plan.

At this juncture a strong man came into leader-ship — Alexander Shepherd — well known after-ward, to the country, by his sobriquet of ” Boss Shepherd.” The history of his political activities makes romantic reading. He believed in Washing-ton, and joining his personal ambitions to the larger issues, succeeded in turning aside the current which opposed her; until Congress finally disposed of the whole question of removing the capital, by appropriating $500,000 to begin the erection of the State, War and Navy Building.

General Grant was president and his friendship for Shepherd was marked and enduring. As governor of the District, the latter forced public improvements against all opposition, determined that the city should no longer be a reproach to its people. The old municipal form of government was abolished and the conservative régime of the past swept away. Eighty of the three hundred miles of half made streets and avenues were improved, and nearly all the thickly settled streets of the city were paved with wood or concrete. A general and costly system of sewers was begun, scores of new parks were graded, fenced, and set with trees and fountains. The old Tiber Canal was filled up, and the greatest nuisance of Washington was thereby shut out of sight.

This digression will serve to recall to the mind of the reader the peculiar circumstances which characterized the early history of Washington to explain the somewhat tardy awakening to artistic consciousness and appreciation of the fine arts, which is apparent in the city.

The Corcoran Gallery of Art was then one of the first of the institutions established by this forward movement. It was carried by the wave of progressive Americanism, which culminated in the Centennial Exhibition, of 1876. Two of the most important museums of the country the Metropolitan and the Boston Museum of the Fine Arts were incorporated in the same year as the Corcoran Gallery 1870. The opening of the actual gallery, however, antedated that of both of these institutions by several years. It occurred on January 19, 1874, when the picture galleries, octagon room, and the hall of bronzes were thrown open for private exhibition. One of the first of the visitors to arrive was the president, General Grant, and many other distinguished personages thronged the halls during this brilliant and crowded inauguration, and Mr. Corcoran was warmly congratulated upon the fulfilment of his munificent plans.

Preparations for the installation of the galleries had occupied three years. In 1873 Mr. Walters, one of the trustees, and the chairman of the purchasing committee, had been empowered by the board to purchase in Europe works of art for the gallery. The choice fell the more naturally to Mr. Walters, as he was that year made art commissioner from the United States to the International Exposition at Vienna.

The most important of his purchases at this time was the collection of Barye bronzes, which still remains one of the chief glories of the institution, and grows yearly in value and rarity.

On April 29, 1874, the halls of sculpture and of bronzes were opened, and in December of the same year all was at the disposal of the public. The building, which in the light of later sophistication appears cumbrous and ill adapted to the uses of a museum, was, at the time of its inauguration, regarded as one of the sights of the city — its solid construction, its lofty ceilings — still proudly designated as the highest in Washington — its heavy en-closed stairway leading directly from the entrance to the second floor, were accepted by citizens and ‘visitors to the capital in the true spirit of the giver.

The Octagon Room, built over the vestibule, on the second story, is still spoken of with respectful admiration, and was designed to contain the famous ” Greek Slave,” one of the chief treasures of Mr. Corcoran’s private collection. The room was undoubtedly inspired by the Salle of the Venus de Milo, at the Louvre, where the chef d’oeuvre is effectively displayed against a red curtain. The walls of the Octagon Room were hung with hand-some maroon paper, against which the white marble of Powers’ masterpiece was richly relieved. The main picture gallery was ninety-five feet nine inches by forty-four feet six inches, with a height of twenty-four feet to the cornice of the arched ceiling, and thirty-eight feet to the inner skylight. All the picture galleries communicated by high, arched doorways, and were lighted from the roof.

The contract for filling the niches of the old gallery with full-length marble statues of eminent painters, sculptors, and architects, for which the plan of the building provided, was given by Mr. Corcoran to Moses Ezekiel (1844 —) then a rising young sculptor, living in Rome. Ezekiel was born in Richmond, Virginia, and was much in the public eye at the time that Mr. Corcoran selected him to complete the ornamentation of the Gallery. In 1872 he modelled the colossal bust of Washington, now in Cincinnati, which gained him admission into the Society of Artists of Berlin. In 1873 he won the Michael Beer prize, never before given to a foreigner, and in 1874 the Jewish Secret Order of the Sons of the Covenant commissioned Ezekiel to erect the group, entitled ” Religious Liberty,” for the Centennial Exhibition. It was unveiled, in Fairmount Park, on November 30, 1876, and now stands in front of Horticultural Hall.

When Mr. Corcoran, desirous of patronizing only American talent, cast about for a sculptor capable of executing the proposed statues for the exterior of the Gallery, his choice fell naturally upon Ezekiel, who had so notable a record of accomplishment, though the selection was more creditable to his zealous intentions than to his artistic judgment, as results amply proved.

The four niches on the front façade were first equipped. Colossal statues of Phidias and Raphael, carved in Carrara marble, were sent from Rome in 1879, and placed, one on each side of the centre of the building. In 1880, Michael Angelo and Albrecht Dürer took their stands in the two remaining niches, and Sculpture, Painting, Architecture, and Engraving were represented. By 1884, the seven receptacles, on the Seventeenth Street side, were fitted with statues of Titian, Rubens, Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Murillo, Canova, and Crawford, and in 1886 the bronze medallion of W. W. Corcoran) which still embellishes the front of the building, was in place.

The whole idea of the statues was unfortunate, and, with the removal of the Gallery to its present site, no provision was made for them.