As far back as sixty-six years ago the Congress of the United States directed the formation of a gallery of art for the nation, and even at a some-what earlier date it gave encouragement to such a project by granting an act of incorporation to a private society, whose collections were eventually to be ceded to the United States. The assembling of art objects under the chartered association began in 1840, and under the specific provision for a gallery, in 1849. The two collections were united in 1862, since which time the subject of art, as a museum feature under the government, has continued in charge of the Smithsonian Institution, in accordance with the terms of its establishment in 1846.
However slow may have been its progress in this field; however lacking in merit the majority of its acquisitions; the Institution fulfilled its obligations to provide a place for the art collections of the nation, has made such efforts as were possible within its limited means and opportunities togather suitable material, and, what is more important, has kept the subject alive in the expectation of ultimately awakening an interest that would justify its course, and realize the intent of Congress.
The cultivation of art, even in directions promising practical benefits to the people, has never received encouragement from the national government, except in the privilege of copyright and patent. The erection of public buildings and monuments, the decoration of interiors, the portraiture of prominent officials, and the designing of medals, coins, currency, and stamps have furnished, essentially, the only opportunities for the recognition of artistic talent; while, on the other hand, the active part taken by the government in developing the material resources of the country has caused its collections in natural history and ethnology to grow rapidly.
There has, therefore, been very little of art in the ownership of the government to which the Institution could claim right of possession ; and the interests of the private benefactor have been directed elsewhere. Fortunately, popular sentiment is now developing a broader national spirit whose effect has already been manifested in such a manner and to such an extent as practically to insure the assembling at Washington, at a time not far distant, of a public collection of the fine arts worthy of the country.
For the initial steps toward the creation of a national gallery of art credit must be given to the National Institute, whose name is now scarcely remembered, though its short life was historically important, and its activities were fruitful in both a material and an educational way. Organized in Washington in 1840 and two years later incorporated by Congress for a period of twenty years nominally for the promotion of science, it established a department of literature and art, and accumulated a museum of considerable size, located in the Patent- Office building, in which the collections of thé government, made prior to1850, were also deposited. Both its constitution and its charter provided that, upon the dissolution of the society, its collections should become the property of the United States.
While the number of art objects in the museum of the Institution was not great, it included examples: of the work of several prominent artists, all of which, with the exception of a few loans, should now be in the possession of the National Museum, though the location of them remains to be ascertained.
Of portraits in oil there were seventeen, including Washington, by the older Peale ; Guizot, Tyler and Preston, by Healy ; Captain Evans, by Copley; Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Monroe, by Gilbert Stuart ; one of Jackson, by Sully and another by R. E. W. Earl ; and Corwin by J. M. Stanley. Among the miscellaneous subjects, numbering at least ten, may be mentioned ” Job and his Comforters,” by Ribera, still preserved in the National Museum.
The notable collection of Indian portraits and scenes, painted for the government by Charles B. King and others, had been deposited with the Institute by the Secretary of War in 1841. The catalogues also enumerate about thirty-five busts, models, etc., a few in marble, and the remainder in plaster. In the majority of cases the artists’ names were, unfortunately, not recorded ; but there were a marble head of Saint Cecilia, by Thorwaldsen, a bust of Cuvier, by Merlieux, and a number of pieces by Ferdinand Pettrich and Clark Mills, besides several antiques.
While the art side, of the Museum was not destined to prosper for many years; it is interesting to note that the first collection purchased from the Smithsonian fund, even before, the completion of the building, was a large series of engravings and etchings, know as the Marsh Collection of Prints; the finest, of its kind which, up to that time, had been brought to the country.
In planning the Smithsonian building, the Board of Regents accorded to the gallery of art its proportionate share of space, setting aside for this purpose two rooms measuring respectively sixty-six by thirty-four, and sixty by thirty-seven feet. The completion of the Smithsonian building in 1857, followed by the fitting up of certain exhibition halls under a special act of Congress, made it possible for the Institution to accept the government collections at the Patent Office in the succeeding year.
At the beginning of the year 1865 a disastrous fire burned out the large upper hall and the main towers of the Smithsonian building, destroying the collection of Indian paintings and much other art material. This calamity led to the scattering, for over thirty years, of most of what remained ; a part of the collection, mainly prints, being deposited in the Library of Congress, and a part in the Corcoran Gallery of Art. In 1896 most of the objects of art which had been thus deposited were recalled, and the art department took on a new lease of life.
Influenced by the attention attracted to the Smithsonian by the bequest of Mrs. Johnston, but before its disposition had been decided by the Court, Mr. Charles L. Freer, of Detroit, Michigan, made a deed of gift to the Institution of his notable, though still unfinished collection, then consisting of over two thousand two hundred and fifty pieces. Unique in its character and choice in its selection, it combines the work of a few American artists, headed by James McNeill Whistler, with that of the masters of the far east. So large is this collection, and so complete its lesson that the donor will provide for it a special building near the new National Museum.
In the course of another eight months Mr. William T. Evans, of New York, presented to the nation a collection of fifty paintings by contemporary American artists, which, through frequent additions, has been increased to one hundred and thirty-six examples, while others are to be expected. There have also been several separate gifts of value.
With the removal of many departments of the Museum’s activities to the new building, in 1910, the art collections were temporarily installed in the central part of the middle hall on the main floor, directly below the skylight well, and included between two rows of nine large, rectangular piers serving as supports for the second floor.
In these new quarters the Gallery was formally opened to the public from noon until five o’clock on the afternoon of March 17, 1910. Admission was by card, partly to prevent undue crowding, and partly to bring the event specially to the attention of Congress, the official body in Washington, and all other persons known to be interested in the promotion of art at the nation’s Capital.