Art Treasures of Washington – The New Building

THE old gallery served its purpose for a little less than a quarter of a century. Before the expiration of the first score of years of its existence, however, it became apparent that the building, which had at first seemed so commodious, would be, in a comparatively short space of time, wholly inadequate for the proper display of the growing collections of the gallery, while larger and better facilities were already required for the rapidly advancing free school of art, for which thoughtful provision had been made by Mr. Corcoran. At the same time it was found that, owing to the inability to acquire land adjoining its site, it would be impossible to enlarge the original building so as to meet the future wants of the two establishments.

These conditions pointed to the necessity of providing, without delay, for the erection of a larger, more conveniently arranged, and better lighted building, upon a plot of ground large enough, not only to furnish space for the projected structure, but also to provide for such enlargements of the gallery as might be required by its normal growth.

In selecting the site of the present gallery, the trustees were again in the vanguard of progress that set the pace for the reclamation of the whole of this lower northwest section, which had been considered irretrievably swampy and malarious, and had been relegated to the uses of what is poetically termed a dump, but which is now trans-formed into one of the most beautiful park spots of Washington.

The land was purchased on April 3, 1891, and on January 9, 1892, it was determined to erect the new gallery, building on the eastern portion of the plot thus acquired. The architect of the new building was Ernest Flagg, chosen from a number of prominent men, who had been invited to compete for the commission. His plans were accepted with certain modifications and alterations, and he was employed to carry them out, under the supervision of a special building committee, created for that purpose.

Ground was broken on June 26, 1893 ; the corner stone laid on May 10, 1894, and on January 8, 1897, the keys of the new building were delivered to the trustees, and the work of transferring the exhibits from the old to the new building was commenced.

On the evening of the twenty-second of February of the same year, the formal opening of the new building was celebrated with a private view, to which more than three thousand invitations were issued. The attendance included the president of the United States (Grover Cleveland) and Mrs. Cleveland; the members of the president’s cabinet, with their wives ; foreign ambassadors and ministers, and the members of their respective legations; senators and representatives in Congress; the judiciary; artists and connoisseurs of the arts; officers of the army and navy; and hundreds of ladies and gentlemen, prominent in private and public life. The whole building was brilliantly illuminated by over three thousand electric lights, presenting a scene of rare beauty; and the music by the Marine Band, which was present by courtesy of the Secretary of the Navy, added charm to the occasion.

The reception committee consisted of the members of the Board of Trustees, as then constituted, including : Edward Clark, Samuel Kauffmann, Frederick B. McGuire, Walter S. Cox, Charles C. Glover, Calderon Carlisle, Matthew W. Galt, William Corcoran Eustis and Thomas Hyde.

The building stands with its main front on Seventeenth Street, extending from New York Avenue on the north to E Street on the south, a distance of two hundred and fifty-nine feet, with a depth of one hundred and thirty-three feet, and occupies about half of the lot. The style of architecture is the socalled Neo-Grecian, the material being white Georgian marble, on a basement of Milford pink granite. The first story is pierced with windows ; the second story rises in a solid white wall broken only by a row of open-work marble panels along the upper edge, which serve as ventilators to the galleries.

Between these panels and the cornice, which is rich in ornamental carving, extends a narrow frieze, bearing, in Roman letters, the names of famous painters and sculptors of ancient and modern times. The roof of glass slants sharply up-ward to the ridge, which is finished by a cresting of bronze, terminating at each end of the building in a winged griffin.

The severity of the elevation is broken by the curve at the north end, in which are located the art school and a lofty semicircular room, known as the hednicycle, designed for lectures, special exhibitions, etc.

The main entrance to the building is on Seventeenth Street, which, at this point, takes on the aspect of a broad and handsome boulevard, leading on to Potomac Park and to the Speedway. The imposing doorway is flanked on each side by a colossal lion in green bronze, mounted on a white marble pedestal. These are reproductions of the famous lions by Canova, which guard the tomb of Pope Clement XIII, in St. Peter’s, at Rome, and were a feature of the entrance to the old building.

The situation of the Corcoran Gallery could scarcely be improved upon. It stands detached from other buildings, faces the broad green of the President’s Park and commands an extensive view of the White House and grounds, the Mall, the Tidal Reservoir and the Washington Monument. It profits of these public parks, which furnish a most appropriate setting for the elegance of its clear cut lines, its handsome proportions, and its beautiful colour. Its one preeminently successful architectural feature is its absolute fitness for its rôle of art museum. The Corcoran Gallery essentially looks the part.

Passing through the entrance, a broad and easy flight of steps leads directly to the main hall or atrium, a spacious apartment extending the length and breadth of the building, lighted by skylights in the roof, through large openings or light wells in the floor above, which is supported by forty fluted monolith columns of Indiana limestone. This wide hall is devoted to the display of the collections of casts from the antique and Renaissance periods, and from it opens a chain of smaller communicating rooms, which, with the exception of those required for the library, administration offices, etc., are also dedicated to sculpture and contain the original marbles, bronzes, additional casts, and the famous Barye Collection.

Directly opposite the entrance, and across the full width of the atrium, rises the grand white marble staircase, fifteen feet in width, and of easy tread, which leads to the second story, and forms one of the most imposing of the architectural features of the interior of the building. The second floor repeats the arrangement of the main floor — the central hall, from which open off eight picture galleries. The immense skylight is supported by thirty-eight fluted monolith columns of Indiana limestone.

As has been pointed out, the Corcoran Gallery possesses sufficient ground in the rear of its building to enlarge several times its present area, a necessity which may arise with the increase of the permanent collections, and the growth in magnitude of its biennial exhibitions of contemporary American paintings.

Of these biennial exhibitions there have been three, limited according to the policy of the exhibition committee, to paintings in oil by living American painters. The first exhibition was held from February 7 to March 9, 1907, and included three hundred and ninety-seven works of sufficient im portance to place the exhibition at once in the for-ward ranks of similar exhibitions throughout the country. The jury of selection for this initial exhibition included : for New York, Irving R. Wiles, H. Bolton Jones, and Louis Loeb; for Philadelphia, Hugh H. Breckenridge, Thomas P. Anshutz, and John Lambert; for Boston, Edmund C. Tarbell, Thomas Allen, and Herman Dudley Murphy; and for Washington, Richard N. Brooke, Max Weyl, and C. H. L. Macdonald. The jury of awards and hanging committee consisted of Irving R. Wiles, Edmund C. Tarbell, Hugh H. Breckenridge, Ralph Clarkson, and Richard N. Brooke.

Towards the success of this initial effort in a new direction, three Washingtonians contributed generously, by offering the following prizes : the W. A. Clark Prize of one thousand dollars, accompanied by the Corcoran Gold Medal ; the Charles C. Glover Prize of five hundred dollars, accompanied by the Corcoran Silver Medal ; and the Victor G. Fischer Prize of two hundred and fifty dollars, accompanied by the Corcoran Bronze Medal. These were awarded respectively to Willard L. Metcalf, for his exhibit entitled, ” May Night,” Frank W. Benson, for his ” Against the Sky,” and to Edward W. Redfield, for his ” Lowlands of the Delaware.”

During the month that the exhibition remained on public view, it was visited by over sixty-two thousand persons and the total sales amounted to $49,000. In view of this unusual success and of the marked interest in the exhibition manifested by the artists, art lovers, connoisseurs, and the public at large, the trustees of the gallery determined to hold a similar exhibition in 1909. For this exhibition Senator Clark came forward handsomely with an offer to finance the whole burden of the prizes, and donated the sum of $5,000 towards this purpose, which was accepted by the trustees. The amount was divided into four prizes of two thou-sand, fifteen hundred, one thousand, and five hundred dollars respectively; and the winners at the second exhibition, held from December 8, 1908 to January 17, 1909, were, Edward W. Redfield, Joseph DeCamp, Robert Reid, and Frederick Carl Frieseke.

Senator Clark repeated his generous donation for the third exhibition, held in the galleries from December 13, 1910 to January 22, 1911, the awards going to Edmund C. Tarbell, Gari Melchers, Childe Hassam, and Daniel Garber. The same sum has been put at the disposal of the management by Senator Clark, for the fourth exhibition in the series which is announced to take place from December 17, 1912 to January 26, 1913.

The three exhibitions of contemporary oil paintings, held in the Corcoran Gallery, were attended by over one hundred and fifty thousand persons. Seventy-three pictures were sold, aggregating $136,410, and of this handsome total, twenty-eight were purchased for the permanent collection of the institution.

If the opening of the new building marked a species of regeneration in the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the biennial exhibitions have undoubtedly greatly stimulated the vitality, the growth, and general usefulness of the institution.

That the Corcoran Gallery has not made strides commensurate with the activities of the two great museums, whose contemporary it is in point of actual birth, is attributable to several causes. Of these not the least potent is the fact that the Gallery, unlike the Boston and the Metropolitan Museums, which were the logical product of a community’s needs, had its conception in the brain of a benefactor, considerably in advance of his locality. The locality is just beginning to catch up with the spirit of the founder, and the biennial exhibition has been the one great spontaneous flower of the thirty-eight years of the Gallery’s existence.

This, more than anything else, has justified the purpose of the institution; a fact that is amply proven by the public’s instant and overwhelming response to its call. The figures given outstrip easily those of institutions older in the field of exhibitions. In the realm of the Gallery’s usefulness no better way has yet been devised to further Mr. Corcoran’s project ” to encourage American genius.”