A couple of decades after Peale made history in Baltimore, the death of a wealthy, eccentric Brit changed the landscape of art in Washington. Not that there was much of a cultural landscape to speak of here before James Smithson’s money fell into the government’s lap. Still, America captured the attention of the childless mineralogist, born in France as the illegitimate son of an English duke. He never set foot in this country, and yet for reasons he took to his grave, Smithson left his fortune to the land he’d only dreamed about, “to found at Washington . . . an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” His family contested the will, but all was found to be in order. Smithson’s bequest was conditional upon his sole beneficiary, a nephew, dying without heirs, which the nephew did just a few years after Smithson. The family’s loss was Washington’s gain: In 1846, the Smithsonian Institution was born — what is now the world’s largest museum and research complex.
One of its treasuries, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, was the nation’s first collection of works by American artists, and it is the country’s the oldest public art collection. But it isn’t housed in anything like the Peale’s cozy, custom-built structure. The contemporary wit and folk curiosities of the American Art Museum, along with the holdings of the National Portrait Gallery, are showcased in the old Patent Office Building. It had been built on a massive, block-filling scale to hold models of inventions, the doll-size fruits of the nation’s dreamers.
If only those walls could talk! Do the echoes of creative enterprise, along with comfort, healing — and tragedy —somehow infuse the art there today? The building also served as a Civil War hospital and morgue. Walt Whitman visited the wounded there, where the once-imperiled Union is now celebrated in Nam June Paik’s video portrait, “Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii,” a digital distillation of what makes each state unique and the quirky patchwork that connects us all.
The rooms where soldiers suffered were later used for Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural ball, which Whitman also attended. The irony was startling: “To-night beautiful women, perfumes, the violins’ sweetness, the polka and the waltz,” he wrote, “but then, the amputation, the blue face, the groan, the glassy eye of the dying, the clotted rage, the odor of wounds and blood.” The poet recognized the space’s special resonance: Such contrasting circumstances are the stuff of art. Witness to history at two extremes — sophisticated revelry and base suffering — the Patent Office is all the more perfect a frame for the most powerful expressions of the nation’s artists.
Tragedy and poetry — and politics — form the backstory to many a Washington art institution. The Air and Space Museum, the most visited museum in the world, also stands on the site of a former Civil War infirmary, the Armory Square Hospital, where the wounded from the battlefields of Virginia were taken. Activists searching for a site for what would become the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts campaigned to build it on that spot, but the Air and Space Museum’s stronger lobby won out, and it opened in time for the nation’s bicentennial in 1976.
A mix of emotions midwifed the Phillips Collection — the country’s first museum of modern art. It stands in tribute to beloved family members and to the consoling power of art. In 1921, arts patron Duncan Phillips turned his family’s Georgian Revival mansion near Dupont Circle into a living memorial to his father and older brother, who died in 1917 and 1918, respectively. The collection that arose from grief became unexpectedly life-affirming. As Phillips wrote, “I turned to my love of painting for the will to live.”
Lacking popes or Medicis, Washington has relied on private benefactors for its art. Personal passions seeded several of the area’s most important museums. Financier William Wilson Corcoran turned his art collection into the eponymous gallery. Andrew Mellon’s Rembrandts, Raphaels and Van Dycks got the National Gallery of Art started; his son Paul’s modern-art donations rounded out the East Wing.
Then there is the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, containing one of the world’s largest personal collections of modern art, formed from the nearly 6,000 Rodins, Giacomettis and other works that caught the ravenous eye of Joseph Hirshhorn. Growing up poor in Latvia, he was mesmerized by the cheap calendar pictures he would cut up and paste on his wall, reproductions of Barbizon paintings. Later, after striking it rich in finance, he bought the originals. And more.
“I’m a little man in a hurry,” he said in a 1976 interview, describing his success with money and art. Sharpening his appetite for art was simple curiosity: “If you’re not curious about anything you’re a dead cookie,” he said. “I mean that. You have to be curious in order to learn something.”
With the Hirshhorn Museum and the National Gallery’s I.M. Pei-designed East Wing both opening in the 1970s, Washington arrived as an axis for the art of our time.
Is its expansion over? Can the city go even bigger, richer and bolder? In matters of art, do size and circumstance matter?
Or isn’t passion the more important engine behind great collections — the urge, perhaps irrational and uncontrollable, to get? And to give.
“It starts with the head, then the gut, and the heart and I want to choose everything in life that way,” said Hirshhorn of his love affair with art.
“After I’m gone,” he continued, “a lot of people will say: ‘This guy was crazy, but he was generous.’”