Corcoran Gallery of Art
500 Seventeenth Street, NW
Washington, DC 20006
500 Seventeenth Street, NW
Washington, DC 20006
$6 Seniors and Military
$3 Member Guests
Becky Ventorini, Director of Special Events
Jeanne W Ruesch, Chairman of the Board
Rachel Cothran, Manager of Public Relations
One block from the White House sits William Wilson Corcoran's gallery, founded for the purpose of "encouraging American genius" in the arts.
The Corcoran Gallery of Art was founded in 1869 as Washington's first museum of art. It is a privately funded institution incorporating both a museum and college of art and design. As one of America's oldest art institutions, the institution is known internationally for its distinguished collection of historical and modern American art as well as European painting, sculpture, photography and decorative arts.
Before you enter, step back and examine this architectural masterpiece designed in 1897 by Paris-trained Ernest Flagg and considered one of the country's finest examples of Beaux Arts architecture. Charles Adams Platt designed the "Clark Wing" added in 1928.
The institution also houses the Corcoran College of Art + Design, Washington's only 4-year college of art and design. The college currently offers a four-year Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) degree program; a two-year Associate of Fine Arts (AFA) degree program; Master of Arts (MA) degree programs in Interior Design and the History of Decorative Arts; and a Continuing Education program encompassing more than 250 courses and seven certificate programs for part-time adult students; as well as year-round classes designed especially for children and teens.
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.
As his collection expanded, 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."
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.
The Corcoran's Collection of 19th Century American Art is among the best in the world. The collection's paintings and sculpture are the legacy of William Wilson Corcoran (1798-1888), the museum's founder and a leading patron of American art. Together with its noted holdings of 19th-century American prints and drawings, the collection brings us face-to-face with the people, the landscape and the lifestyles of a dramatically different time.
In keeping with its founder's commitment to the art of his day, the Corcoran continues to broaden its collection to include a wide selection of works by contemporary artists. Today, the Corcoran is renowned for its collection of 20th-century painting, sculpture and photography. In total, the Corcoran's American holdings illuminate the nation's history and artistic development from colonial times through the 20th century.
Access: Students, Scholars
Appointment required: Yes
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