The Corcoran Gallery of Art

The Corcoran Gallery of Art

I wouldn’t read much into it, it’s progress knock it down, it’s the Last Bookstore in Town
Graham Parker

Learning and writing about Art and History are my serious hobbies. In fact, my main credential for writing this piece is that, like many other people, I am an avid museum goer and also a frequent tourist of Washington D.C. So when I read that the present plan concerning the Corcoran Gallery of Art is described as an act that would have been frowned on by William Corcoran, I could not help but to recoil. This allegation seems to ignore the basic facts of the situation as I understand them. While any change affecting any great institution is sad, my gut tells me that maybe this one is for the best.

I studied the life and times of William Corcoran and the beginnings of the Smithsonian Institution for three pieces I wrote, all of which now appear on this website  ( Dedicated To Art;Why Jackie Kennedy Saved the Renwick at; The Smithsonian Castle: An Allegory at and Follow the Money- The Legacy Perhaps of James Smithson at ). I read Corcoran’s self-published book and cited it. I am familiar with the documents creating  the Corcoran Gallery of Art. In fact, William Corcoran was dead when the present Corcoran Gallery of Art was built, and therefore he could not have any intention as to the present building. As to the art it contains, it seems to me that the plan as I understand it is more of a fulfillment of his wishes than a violation of them.

William Wilson Corcoran (1798-1888) was a dry goods store owner turned banker from Georgetown with untold influence in Washington DC. He made a fortune funding the Mexican American War in 1846-1848.  Although known to be sympathetic to the South in the years leading to the civil war, there is no evidence that Corcoran favored the institution of slavery. The best evidence depicts Corcoran as favoring the continued union of the states through the compromises on slavery and this may have led to his participation in the Mexican-American War. Corcoran was friendly with most powerful people in Washington including Joseph Henry, the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. In 1846, Corcoran lent his considerable expertise to help build the Smithsonian Castle, a project abhorred by Henry. Joseph Henry wanted the Smithson bequest to fund pure science, but Congress felt that the building of the a large building which would contain a library, museum and art gallery was more in keeping with James Smithson’s unusual alternate residuary bequest “to the united states of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” Henry denounced the Castle as a huge waste of money.


William Corcoran loved art and he collected art both for his personal collection and for the nascent Smithsonian Institution. He was probably using his own money for both collections as I have seen no evidence that he received a penny of the bequest monies before buying any art. When he retired from banking as a very wealthy man, Corcoran travelled to Europe with a note of introduction from Joseph Henry, who was becoming well known among scientific circles in Europe due to his groundbreaking scientific work. Corcoran returned from his 1855 trip with the beginnings of the nation’s first collection of art for public display. By this time, Joseph Henry was living in the Castle with his family and he was growing more irritated by the constant disruptions caused by the presence of a library and an art gallery. Corcoran, who lived nearby, kept many of his collected works in his home which, during the mid to late 1850’s, he freely showed to interested parties. As his collection expanded, and perhaps to accommodate Joseph Henry, Corcoran contracted with James Renwick, Jr., the architect of the Castle, to build an Art Gallery near his home. It was to be a structure “Dedicated To Art”, a phrase probably coined by Corcoran, and that was the inscription placed in its façade. This was the birth of the first Corcoran Gallery of Art which is now known as the Renwick Gallery of Art now part of the Smithsonian Institution.

Construction on the art gallery had begun in 1858. It was designed in Second Empire style, a Parisian architectural movement of the time. Although not nearly the size of its Parisian counterpart, the Gallery was dubbed “The American Louvre”, probably as a bit of promotion by Corcoran who showed a grand flair for the artistic and the dramatic. The building was near completion when the civil war broke out in 1861. Corcoran smartly sat out the war by travelling to Europe and his Gallery was taken by the Union Army and used as a supply depot until the war ended. It is unclear what happened to the artwork that Corcoran had collected…where it was stored and if it became further comingled, as obviously art was not the highest priority of the time. We do know that in 1865, the Smithsonian was to have an exhibit of the Native American portraits of John Mix Stanley. Joseph Henry blamed the preparation of that exhibit for the devastating fire of January 1865 which destroyed part of the Smithsonian and countless documents of scientific, historical and cultural significance, including most of the Stanley works and James Smithson’s personal papers. Henry, who never wanted the Castle to be a museum, used the fire as an excuse to jettison the library and the art museum, with many of the Smithsonian art works ultimately ending up in the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Upon returning to Washington after the war, Corcoran moved forward with the idea that an art museum was needed in Washington and in 1869, he deeded the Art Gallery and some of his works to the Trustees of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, an entity he had set up and funded. Although the ownership of specific works in the collection may have been unclear, Corcoran was able to temporarily open the completed Gallery with massive fanfare in 1871. It later began its run as the first art museum in the new country. Corcoran continued collecting art and when he died in 1888 his art collection and that of the Corcoran Gallery proved too large for the building bearing his name. In 1897, a new building was constructed a few blocks away and it not only correctly took the name “Corcoran Gallery of Art” but also again used the inscription “Dedicated To Art” in its façade, as tribute to the vision of its original founder.

The 1869 deed for the first Corcoran Gallery of Art clearly conveys Corcoran’s purpose:

“…in the execution of a long cherished desire to establish an institution in Washington city, to be “dedicated to Art,” and solely used for the purpose of encouraging American genius, in the production and preservation of works pertaining to the “Fine Arts,” and kindred objects…”

Here Corcoran channels the language of the Smithson bequest but leaves no doubt that his building was to be “Dedicated To Art” and not to science or literature, perhaps freeing the Castle from those burdens. Corcoran specifically indicated that admission to the Gallery was to free of charge at least two days per week, a grand gesture of his intent that the inspiration provided by his Gallery might benefit even those who could not afford to pay admission. From the 1870’s to the 1890’s, his vision was fulfilled by the Gallery at Lafayette Square.

If William Wilson Corcoran’s vision was to have great art free and visible and accessible in Washington for the purpose of fostering American genius, he would be well pleased today. Between the National Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, the Renwick Gallery of Art (currently closed for renovation), The Hirschorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Freer Gallery and the Sackler Gallery, the amount of phenomenal art one can see for free in Washington DC is unbelievable. Other art museums such as the Phillips Collection and, yes, the Corcoran Gallery of Art have contributed to my opinion that Washington DC is the premier city for art viewing in the world (note: as a native New Yorker even I am shocked by this admission; and yes, I have been to Paris and Rome and Florence and Amsterdam…Where is the American Art there?). Only in the National Gallery of Art can you stand in a room with 17 Cezannes…by yourself! I was in a room with more Vermeers than people! A Da Vinci that you don’t need binoculars to see! Don’t get me started on the American Art, from the Copleys to the Warhols…the genius is on display everywhere. And did I mention that most of it is FREE.

If I may digress, the wondrous thing about Washington for art lovers is that most of the tourists who go there, even those who might frequent the art museums of other cities, barely get to all the art museums. Americans and other tourists who have maybe a week to spend in Washington have their itineraries full of other things. Personally, my most poignant moment in visiting Washington was not in a museum, it was on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where at 7 am a small group of tourists presumably from mainland China were admiring our 16thPresident and sharing their thoughts with each other in their native tongue. To my astonishment, one of them stood next to me on the place where Martin Luther King reestablished America’s Creed and as he looked out on the reflecting pool he said in near perfect English “Free at last, Free at last, great God almighty…we are free at last”. In my mind, somehow William Wilson Corcoran with his dedication to something great helped bring Washington to that moment, which still gives me goose bumps and brings a tear to my eye.

All of which brings me to where we are today. For me, ultimately the issue of the Corcoran Gallery is not so much about one man’s vision, it is not about a building and it is not even about art. It is about trust. Since I believe that the National Gallery of Art is the greatest art museum in the world and has helped establish Washington as the greatest city for art in the world, I trust that it will do right by the Corcoran collection.  Others who are against the plan may not share my trust, and perhaps I do not see all that they see or know all that they know.  I can only imagine how difficult it has been for the Corcoran Gallery of Art to function as an independent museum in a town that despite its incredible collections, is not really about art. That is the beauty of the Smithson Bequest and the Corcoran gifts…they have created something much greater than even they could have anticipated in a city that needs great art if only to counter the nonsense that is often associated with some of its other institutions. As times change and politics change and buildings rise and fall, it is the great ideas that move us forward as a civilization. Those ideas may be expressed in our founding documents, the speeches of our great leaders, the advancement in the sciences and in the great art of the world. I trust that this is a move forward and I suspect that William Wilson Corcoran would think so too.