In the words of its founder, the Corcoran is “dedicated to art.” Its museum presents, interprets and preserves the art of our times and of times past; its college of art nurtures and helps shape new generations of artists and designers. Education is a central focus, not just in the Corcoran’s classrooms but in its galleries and throughout the greater Washington region. Though American art is the collection’s emphasis, the art of other nations and cultures is, when appropriate, acquired and exhibited.
The Corcoran is committed to making the historic art in its collections and the emerging art of our time accessible and understandable to the broadest possible audience through innovative exhibitions and educational programming, systematic research and rigorous scholarship. Its many activities emphasize the combined resources of its museum and college, and are directed toward diverse communities with widely differing educational and socio-economic backgrounds. Though proud of its important place in the international world of art history and scholarship, the Corcoran is ever mindful of its special obligation to serve the greater Washington region, especially its artists and its young people.
The Corcoran Gallery of Art stands as a major center of American art, both historic and contemporary. Founded “for the purpose of encouraging American Genius,” the Corcoran’s extensive collection of 18th, 19th, and 20th century American art represents most significant American artists. The Corcoran possesses a fine collection of European art as well. While continuing its efforts to represent historic American works, the gallery also encourages modern European and American artists by showing and purchasing their work, paying particular attention to artists in the Washington area.
The Corcoran Gallery was founded to house the private art collection of William Wilson Corcoran (1798-1888). Born in Georgetown in 1798, Corcoran was the son of an influential merchant and former mayor. His attempt to start a dry goods business at the age of 19 was a failure, but later success as a financier led to the founding of his own brokerage firm in 1837. In 1840, he and partner George W. Riggs formed the bank Corcoran & Riggs, and within a few years they were doing a booming business as a financial agent of the federal government during the Mexican War. He retired in 1854 to pursue philanthropic work.
Corcoran made his fortune during an era when many successful businessmen and industrialists were investing money to endow charitable and educational institutions such as hospitals, orphanages, universities, libraries, and museums. He was also one of the few early patrons of contemporary American art at a time when many American collectors were purchasing European works. Corcoran was a personal friend to several of the artists whose work now hang in the gallery, including Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Church, Thomas Doughty, and George Inness. In general, he would buy a work for his collection only after the artists had a well-established reputation. His holdings soon came to include a number of American and European landscapes and genre paintings, as well as some sculpture.
Corcoran’s philanthropic efforts continued through his life and, though he never served on the gallery’s Board of Trustees, he remained vital to its operation and continued to influence the acquisition of new works. He died in 1888 at the age of 89.
As his collection expanded, William Corcoran began to open his home to visitors twice a week to allow them to view it. This practice soon led him to formulate plans for a public building to house and display the collection. In 1859, he commissioned James Renwick to design a gallery at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 17th Street (now the Smithsonian Institution’s Renwick Gallery). His plans were changed, though, by the outbreak of the Civil War. Corcoran, a southern sympathizer, retired to Europe to wait out the war, and in his absence the federal government seized the still-unfinished building. Only after the war was the gallery returned to its owner and completed. On May 10, 1869, Corcoran deeded the building, grounds, and a private collection valued at $100,000 to the nine members of a self-perpetuating Board of Trustees. The following year, the institution was chartered and exempted from taxes by an Act of Congress. The Corcoran Gallery of Art formally opened its doors on January 19, 1874 with an exhibition of 98 paintings and sculptures. By the end of the year, the collection had expanded to more than 300 works.
Corcoran instructed his Trustees to open the gallery free to the public twice a week. The remaining days they were to charge “moderate and reasonable fees for admission” in keeping with the cost of maintaining the building and collection. Senator H.S. Foote commented in 1873, “If all the great capitalists that our country contains could be persuaded to imitate his noble example, our republic would so become paradise.”
By 1890 the gallery had outgrown Renwick’s red brick building. Stymied by neighbors who would not sell their property to allow the gallery to expand at the original site, the Trustees bought a lot a few blocks away at 17th Street and New York Avenue. Architect Ernest Flagg was commissioned to design a Beaux-Arts building to house both the museum and the school. Ground was broken on June 26, 1893 and the finished building opened to the public on January 8, 1897; by this time the collection included more than 700 works of art. The old building was sold to the U.S. Government in 1901, and is now part of the Smithsonian Institution.
Up until this time, the gallery had only been able to display its permanent collection supplemented by loans from artists and private collectors. The increased space of the new building allowed the museum to pursue other activities such as special temporary exhibitions. The popularity of such shows led to the establishment in 1907 of the nationally recognized Biennial Exhibitions of Contemporary American Painting. These large exhibitions and their generous prizes attracted the attention of major American artists including Childe Hassam, John Singer Sargent, Willard D. Metcalf, Edward W. Redfield, Gari Melchers, Edward Hopper, and William M. Paxton. The gallery capitalized on these opportunities to expand its American collection.
Significant additions to the gallery’s holdings came during the 1920s and 1930s through the generosity of several major American collectors. In 1925 Senator William Andrews Clark of Montana bequeathed his extensive collection of European art, including almost 200 paintings, sculptures, tapestries, rugs, antiquities, stained glass windows, and a Louis XVI-era salon. Architect Charles Platt designed a new wing to house this collection, which was built with funds donated by the Clark family. The Clark Wing was completed in 1928. The Clark Wing housing this collection, built using funds donated by the Clark family, was opened to the public in 1928. Further additions came through a bequest from Edward and Mary Walker in 1937, including French Impressionist works by Renoir, Monet, and Pissaro. As a result, the gallery’s collection came to include a fine selection of European art, although in general the Trustees have continued to restrict purchases to the work of American artists.
More recent additions to the collection include the Gordon Parks Collection of Photographs, the Evans-Tibbs Collection of African American Art, and the Edelson Collection of European Avant-Garde Photography.
Throughout its remarkable history, the Corcoran Gallery of Art has responded to changes in American life and art while responding to its founder’s admonition that the institution be used “for the purpose of encouraging American Genius.” It is a tribute to William Wilson Corcoran’s vision that the gallery and school continue to find new ways to respond to this challenge.