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The Corcoran Gallery of Art was founded in 1869 as an institution "dedicated to art, and used solely for the purpose of encouraging the American genius." It began as the private art collection of William Wilson Corcoran (1798-1888), founding partner in the successful banking firm of Corcoran and Riggs. His original collection, many examples of which are reproduced in this volume, featured American landscape painting, including views by Thomas Cole, Jasper Francis Cropsey, and Thomas Doughty. He also owned a large number of genre scenes, by artists such as Seth Eastman, Eastman Johnson, Frank Blackwell Mayer, and William Tylee Ranney. The collection was rounded out by canvases by Emanuel Leutze and Thomas Sully as well as by Hiram Powers's famous marble The Greek Slave (page 62).
Corcoran opened his art-filled Washington, D.C., home (at the corner of Sixteenth and H Streets, S.W.) to visitors during the 1850s. In 1859 he commissioned the architect James Renwick to design an art museum just a few blocks away, at Seventeenth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, across from the White House. By the time the gallery opened in 1874 (having been delayed by the Civil War), the collection had expanded from W. W. Corcoran's original seventy-eight paintings and sculptures to more than three hundred works. Soon afterward, an art school, now the Corcoran College of Art and Design, was established adjacent to the gallery.
A patriotic man (despite his secessionist sympathies during the Civil War), Corcoran was determined that his museum become the national gallery of its time. To that end, with Corcoran's active involvement, the new museum continued to collect contemporary Americanart, displaying it alongside contemporary European works and casts of ancient sculpture. In 1876, for example, the Corcoran purchased Frederic Edwin Church's majestic Niagara (page 79). Many other living artists were eager to have their works represented in the prestigious Corcoran; in 1878 Albert Bierstadt succeeded in selling the Gallery his massive view of an imaginary scene titled Mount Corcoran (page 82). During the same decade, Corcoran carried his nationalistic mission even further, adding likenesses of American presidents and other dignitaries to the museum.
By 1891, three years after Corcoran's death, the collection had grown so dramatically that it could no longer be displayed in Renwick's building, and a larger plot of land was purchased a few blocks away, at Seventeenth Street and New York Avenue. Ernest Flagg was commissioned to design the Beaux-Arts style building that is the museum's current home, which was completed in 1897. Once the Corcoran settled into this expanded facility, the museum continued to collect American art. Its European collections were soon significantly augmented as well, thus building on Corcoran's original desire that American viewers see their native art alongside European examples. In 1925 U.S. Senator William Andrews Clark of Montana bequeathed to the Corcoran his fine collection of European art, which includes excellent examples of Dutch, Flemish, and French paintings plus the Salon Dore, an eighteenth-century French period room. Charles Platt designed a wing to house the Clark collection, which opened in 1928, nearly doubling the size of the museum. A second major European collection came in 1937 as the bequest of Edward and Mary Walker, including French painting from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
In the years since the Clark wing was completed, many purchases and gifts, notably those resulting from the Biennials, have strengthened the Gallery's holdings of American art. Through these exhibitions, outstanding examples of American Impressionism and other late-nineteenth-century movements, as well as early-twentieth-century realism, were added to the Corcoran's noted collection of Hudson River School paintings. Childe Hassam's Impressionist canvases, realist works by Winslow Homer, paintings by the American expatriate John Singer Sargent, and important paintings by the early-twentieth-century realists William Glackens, Edward Hopper, and John Sloan are among the many masterworks acquired from Corcoran Biennials. The tradition of purchasing Biennial works continues to this day; in recent years, acquisitions have included works by Ida Applebroog, Robert Mangold, Sean Scully, and Jessica Stockholder. The Corcoran Women's Committee, founded in 1953, has supported many purchases, often those made from the Biennials, and acquisitions were an important motivation in the 1961 founding of the Friends of the Corcoran. Over the years, additions to the collection have also been funded by the William A. Clark Fund, the Anna E. Clark Fund, and the Gallery Fund.
Many important individual donors have followed in W. W. Corcoran's footsteps through their gifts, bequests, and funding for purchases. The 1941 James Parmelee bequest added a broad range of significant American paintings and sculpture to the collection. In 1949 John Singer Sargent's sisters, Miss Emily Sargent and Mrs. Violet Ormond, donated an extensive collection of outstanding drawings by this esteemed artist. The drawings, along with the Corcoran's five oils by Sargent, make him one of the best-represented artists in the collection. Olga Hirshhorn has donated more than twenty works of American and European modern and contemporary art. A significant gift of thirty-four African-American works and an important archive and library were the 1996 gift of Thurlow Evans Tibbs, Jr. Other donors include the artists themselves, from the turn-of-the-century sculptor Bessie Potter Vonnoh, who bequeathed most of her life's work to the Corcoran (likely because of its art school), to the twentieth-century artists Joseph Goldyne, Manuel Neri, and Dennis Oppenheim. In 1998 the photographer Gordon Parks donated 227 of his works to the museum.
The Corcoran's collection is characterized by great breadth as well as significant depth. As the collection and other aspects of the museum and the College of Art and Design continue to expand beyond the capacity of the Flagg building and Platt wing, the Corcoran is embarking on plans to improve and expand these spaces. Within the first few years of the twenty-first century, the building's first renovation and addition since 1928 will be undertaken, to be designed by the internationally acclaimed architect Frank Gehry. The Corcoran will thus continue to carry the pioneering spirit of William Wilson Corcoran into the new millennium.