Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on September 28, 2009 by permission of the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the Yale University Art Gallery directly through this phone number or Web address


Yale University Art Gallery

by Marie N. Weltzien


The oldest university museum in the western hemisphere, the Yale University Art Gallery was established in 1832 following an agreement between Yale's president, Jeremiah Day, and John Trumbull. According to this "indenture," as it was called, the artist-patriot sold the University twenty-eight of his paintings, including the whole original series of Revolutionary War scenes, along with sixty miniatures, in return for a lifelong annuity of $1,000. Yale also promised to build a fireproof building for the paintings and agreed that Trumbull's paintings would "never be sold, alienated, divided or dispersed." Professor Benjamin Silliman Sr., Trumbull's nephew-in-Iaw, even persuaded the Connecticut Legislature to appropriate $7,000 for the construction of the Trumbull Gallery -- surely one of America's earliest arts grants.

The artist's own design was followed in the creation of the elegant neo-classical building. Trumbull and his paintings arrived by steamer from New York in early October 1832, and were hung on the red moreen-covered walls along with the twenty-three paintings already owned by Yale including John Smibert's famous portrait of Dean Berkeley and his Entourage (The Bermuda Group) and Trumbull's monumental standing portrait General George Washington.

A few years later, delighted with his Trumbull Art Gallery, the artist gave Yale six more of his paintings, all subject to the original conditions. Unfortunately this building was razed in 1901. Within the present museum, however, the Trumbull Gallery is arranged to reflect the atmosphere of a nineteenth-century picture gallery and Trumbull's paintings, along with other important sculptures and paintings of the last century, are displayed there.

Since its founding the Yale Art Gallery's holdings have grown to well over 80,000 objects from around the world, dating from ancient Egyptian times to the present day. It remains internationally renowned for its collections of American paintings and decorative arts.

Yale-associated artists have always been generous donors to the museum. In 1866 Samuel F. B. Morse gave his Dying Hercules and the 1812 plaster study for it as well as the monumental painting by his teacher Washington Allston, Jeremiah Dictating his Prophecy of the Destruction of Jerusalem to Baruch the Scribe. The painter John Ferguson Weir, the first director of the Yale School of Fine Arts from 1869 to 1913, gave many paintings and studies to the Art Gallery, which, together with letters and other documents donated later by the Weir family, form an invaluable record of academic practices in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As Weir himself noted, "A distinct department of Fine Arts in a University, with all the appurtenances for professional art training, is a new feature in the general scheme of education which Yale College has the credit of successfully inaugurating in this country." It is, perhaps, owing to this emphasis on visual arts in a Yale education that alumni have been such generous and knowledgeable donors.

Frederick Remington, who attended Yale but left before graduating, gave his painting The Scream of Shrapnel at San Juan Hill and the bronze Wounded Bunkie. Other Remington works, notably What an Unbranded Cow has Cost, have become part of the collection through the generosity of alumni and friends.

The core of the American art collection came from another alumnus, Francis P. Garvan, who, in 1930, offered the University his collection of early American art in honor of his wife, Mabel Brady Garvan. Eventually the Garvan Collection came to include some ten thousand examples of American silver, furniture, pewter, ceramics, glass, brass, wrought iron, and textiles as well as a formidable collection of paintings, prints and sculpture. In 1932, Mr. Garvan presented the University with the Whitney Collection of Sporting Art, arguably the finest collection of its kind ever assembled in this country, in honor of his friends Harry Payne Whitney and Payne Whitney.

Almost every known sport is represented in works by George Bellows, Arthur F. Tait, Remington, and Thomas Eakins, among others. Eakins' Taking the Count and his John Biglin in a Single Scull, were the first works by the artist to come to Yale, and the latter became the impetus for the recent exhibition Thomas Eakins: The Rowing Pictures, organized by Helen A. Cooper, the Holcombe T. Green Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture. Mr. and Mrs. Garvan's open-ended giving came to include paintings by Childe Hassam, Robert Henri, Charles Willson Peale, John Quidor, and many other distinguished American artists.

In 1937 the Edwin Austin Abbey Memorial Collection, comprising more than twenty-five hundred paintings, drawings, and watercolors, was bequeathed to Yale by the artist's widow. At the time, appreciation for the elaborate Victorian style of this superb narrative painter had waned, but a 1973 exhibition of his work at Yale went far in reviving public interest in this extraordinary artist.

In succeeding decades, gifts and bequests from alumni and friends added to the already strong colonial and Federal portraits and history paintings. In the 1940s the Art Gallery acquired such outstanding works as John Singleton Copley's portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Isaac Smith, which recently returned to Yale after touring in the John Singleton Copley in America exhibition, and Benjamin West's landmark neoclassical work Agrippina Landing at Brindisium with the Ashes of Germanicus. In the 1950s several significant examples of folk art were acquired, among them portraits of Dr. and Mrs. Hezekiah Beardsley, by an anonymous painter known now as the Beardsley limner, and several versions of the Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks.

In addition to works of historic significance, the Art Gallery has always sought to acquire the works of living artists. With the gift in 1941 of the Société Anonyme Collection, formed by Katherine S. Dreier with the help of Marcel Duchamp, and the bequest in 1953 of Dreier's private collection, Yale ultimately accessioned 1,019 works by 180 twentieth-century artists, fifty-three of them American.

Another superb group of American paintings came to the Gallery in 1961 as part of the bequest of Stephen Carlton Clark, a distinguished connoisseur and generous patron. Among them were such important realist works as Winslow Homer's The Morning Bell, and A Game of Croquet, Edward Hopper's Rooms by the Sea, Sunlight in a Cafeteria, and Rooms for Tourists, a portrait, Miss Jean and many other works by George Bellows, and several more paintings by Thomas Eakins. Fortunately for the Art Gallery, Mr. Clark did not limit his collecting to American art; his bequest also included Vincent van Gogh's The Night Cafe, Edouard Manet's Young Woman Reclining in Spanish Costume, and several works by Pablo Picasso.

In the late 1960s and the 1970s the Art Gallery significantly strengthened its collection of American landscapes with the acquisition of works by Asher Durand, Frederick E. Church, Albert Bierstadt, and Sanford Gifford, and still lifes by William Harnett, Martin Johnson Beade, and William Bailey among others. Willard Leroy Metcalf's Midsummer Shadows and paintings by Theodore Robinson and Ernest Lawson, given at this time, augmented Yale's holdings of American Impressionism, which included ChiIde Hassam's West Wind, Isle of Shoals, bequeathed to the University Library by Sinclair Lewis. Again, a single painting inspired Helen Cooper to curate one of the Yale's most popular traveling exhibitions, Childe Hassam: An Island Garden Revisited.

In the past two decades the Art Gallery has received extraordinary collections of American art, mostly from the period after World War II. In 1977, the late Anni Albers gave the museum sixty-four paintings by her husband, Josef Albers, who had been head of the department of graphic design at Yale. In 1995, Richard Brown Baker, of the class of 1935, gave a group of works by Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline, Roy Lichtenstein and many others and promised his entire collection of well over a thousand objects.

A visitor to the Yale Art Gallery can comfortably view a representative and superb selection of American painting covering two and a half centuries, before and after Impressionism. Furthermore, the roots of Impressionism can be surveyed nearby with a superb group of French paintings given in 1983 by Paul Mellon, and gifts from other friends of the Art Gallery, including Helen Altschul and the generous collector Katherine Dreier.

The museum today occupies two adjacent structures. The main building, completed in 1953 was designed by the distinguished American architect, Louis I. Kahn. His first important public commission and the first of four art museums he would design, the Yale Art Gallery is acclaimed for its significance in the history of contemporary American architecture. The Kahn building is connected on the first and third floors to the Italian gothic Art Gallery designed by Edgerton Swartwout in 1928. Behind the museum is a sculpture garden in which are works by Henry Moore, Louise Nevelson, David Smith, Dimitri Hadzi, and Aristide Maillol.

About the author

Marie Weltzien was born and educated in England, reading (majoring in) history at Oxford University. She worked in journalism and public relations in Vienna, Austria, and New York before taking the position of director of public information at the Yale University Art Gallery. She retired, after 15 years, in 2005.


Resource Library editor's note

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on September 28, 2009, with permission of author, which was granted to TFAO on August 11, 2009. This article appeared in the May - June 1997 issue of American Art Review. It was written with information provided by Helen A. Cooper, the Holcombe T. Green Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture at Yale University Art Galleries.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation Adrienne Webb of Yale University Art Gallery and Shana Herb Johannessen for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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