Carving Up the Corcoran: An Art Collection, Redistributed

Even if you never visited the Corcoran Gallery of Art, which closed in 2014, chances are you’ve seen pieces which once belonged to the venerable institution, which was one of the first art museums in the country. With works by a host of artists stretching across centuries, it housed everything from Old Master paintings and Renaissance ceramics to substantial collections of American, Modern, and Contemporary Art. The final distribution of works from the now-shuttered museum has just been announced, and fortunately most of it will be staying here in DC.

The decline and fall of the Corcoran was a long, drawn-out, sad affair. As the museum lost its way in pricey projects which were never going to get off the drawing board, it entered a death spiral of financial difficulty, lawsuits, and bad press which ended up with its collection being given to the National Gallery to pick over. Having selected the pieces it wanted for its own collection, the National Gallery was charged by the courts to work with other institutions, particularly those in the DC area, to find a new home for a whopping 10,000+ items.

Not surprisingly, the National Gallery kept all of the best pieces for itself. It selected over 6,000 works from the Corcoran hoard, among which are this beautiful Cuatrocento Sienese altarpiece by Andrea Vanni (c. 1330-1413), which is quite a jewel:

converted to digital April 2006

Other pieces included John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)’s sunny, highly atmospheric “Setting Out to Fish” from 1878:

Sargent

And the stunning “Young Woman in Kimono” (c. 1901) by Sargent’s contemporary, Alfred Henry Maurer (1868-1932):

Mujer

Of the items being redistributed, 99.4% will be given to other DC institutions, including several universities, museums, government offices, and the Supreme Court, among others. As to this last recipient, the Justices will now be hosting this penetrating portrait of Chief Justice John Marshall painted in 1830 by Robert Matthew Sully (1803-1855), a scion of one of America’s most prominent family of painters. Somewhat unconventionally for a judicial portrait, it shows the Chief Justice staring pensively and perhaps even a bit wistfully off to his left, rather than at the viewer. For comparison, you can see a more conventionally Federal portrait by Sully’s uncle, Thomas Sully (1783-1872), which depicts a copy of an earlier portrait of President James Madison by Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828); this Corcoran piece is headed to the National Portrait Gallery.

Sully

The majority of the remaining works – nearly 9,000 works in total – will be headed up Massachusetts Avenue to American University, where they will be housed in the Katzen Arts Center. I must confess that, probably like many Washingtonians, I’ve never actually visited this museum. Once the acquisition of the Corcoran works is completed however, I will likely have to make that difficult, 15-minute cab ride to see the result. Most of what they are getting are Modern and Contemporary works, which interest me very little, but who knows?

If you really want to get into the weeds, a full distribution list is available here, divided by receiving institution. Among the more interesting, smaller transfers, I was pleased to note that two drawings by Armistead Peter III will be returning to Tudor Place in Georgetown, the Neoclassical estate where he and the rest of the Peter clan resided for centuries. Upon his death, the house was converted into a museum, and one well-worth your time should you happen to find yourself in the village.

While it is regrettable that the Corcoran went away, the legacy of the institution will live on in these collections, and perhaps serve as a cautionary tale to other art institutions who lose their focus while trying to be all things to all people.

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