Wadsworth Atheneum

  • Arts & Culture
  • 1842

An atheneum, in nineteenth-century parlance, was a cultural institution broadly devoted to art, books, science, history, and other fields, often broadly combined in a mix of library, gallery, scientific rooms, and lecture spaces.

Hartford, Connecticut, resident Daniel Wadsworth was a relative of painter John Trumbull, friend of landscapist Thomas Cole, amateur painter and architect himself, and one of the first important American patrons of the arts. He originally hoped to give his city “a Gallery of Fine Arts,” but was persuaded instead to create a broader Wadsworth Atheneum. In addition to its art gallery, it originally housed the Connecticut Historical Society, the forerunner of the Hartford Public Library, and a Natural History Society.

The institution officially opened in 1844, making it the oldest public museum of art and culture in the U.S. Like many philanthropic creations it was built up, broadened, and deepened by generations of succeeding donors. Watkinsons, Goodwins, Colts, Averys, Sumners, and other donor families added whole new elements to the museum. Hartford native J. P. Morgan gave the Morgan Memorial, and in 1917 his son J. P. Morgan Jr. donated many ancient, Renaissance, and seventeenth-century items from his father’s personal holdings.

The Morgans later purchased for the Atheneum a preeminent collection of Pilgrim furniture and decorations. This was fitting given that Wadsworth’s ancestors were some of the first Pilgrim settlers in Connecticut. (Daniel’s father, Jeremiah, generated the family’s wealth—as a trader, manufacturer, banker, and insurer.)

The Atheneum has been a remarkably catholic center of culture. It hosted the first performance of Russian choreographer George Balanchine’s American dance company. It organized the first surrealist exhibit in the U.S. It premiered an opera by Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson. In addition to housing 50,000 works of art, the Atheneum continues to present dramas, dance performances, literary lectures, historical exhibits, textile shows, concerts, storytelling and poetry readings, films, and other cultural events. And matching the museum’s many distinct nooks and divisions are extraordinarily deep boards of donors, hundreds strong, who guide and support each branch.