Expansion of the Gallery
By 1890 the gallery had outgrown Renwick’s red brick building. Stymied by neighbors who would not sell their property to allow the gallery to expand at the original site, the Trustees bought a lot a few blocks away at 17th Street and New York Avenue. Architect Ernest Flagg was commissioned to design a Beaux-Arts building to house both the museum and the school. Ground was broken on June 26, 1893 and the finished building opened to the public on January 8, 1897; by this time the collection included more than 700 works of art. The old building was sold to the U.S. Government in 1901, and is now part of the Smithsonian Institution.
Up until this time, the gallery had only been able to display its permanent collection supplemented by loans from artists and private collectors. The increased space of the new building allowed the museum to pursue other activities such as special temporary exhibitions. The popularity of such shows led to the establishment in 1907 of the nationally recognized Biennial Exhibitions of Contemporary American Painting. These large exhibitions and their generous prizes attracted the attention of major American artists including Childe Hassam, John Singer Sargent, Willard D. Metcalf, Edward W. Redfield, Gari Melchers, Edward Hopper, and William M. Paxton. The gallery capitalized on these opportunities to expand its American collection.
Significant additions to the gallery’s holdings came during the 1920s and 1930s through the generosity of several major American collectors. In 1925 Senator William Andrews Clark of Montana bequeathed his extensive collection of European art, including almost 200 paintings, sculptures, tapestries, rugs, antiquities, stained glass windows, and a Louis XVI-era salon. Architect Charles Platt designed a new wing to house this collection, which was built with funds donated by the Clark family. The Clark Wing was completed in 1928. The Clark Wing housing this collection, built using funds donated by the Clark family, was opened to the public in 1928. Further additions came through a bequest from Edward and Mary Walker in 1937, including French Impressionist works by Renoir, Monet, and Pissaro. As a result, the gallery’s collection came to include a fine selection of European art, although in general the Trustees have continued to restrict purchases to the work of American artists.
More recent additions to the collection include the Gordon Parks Collection of Photographs, the Evans-Tibbs Collection of African American Art, and the Edelson Collection of European Avant-Garde Photography.
Throughout its remarkable history, the Corcoran Gallery of Art has responded to changes in American life and art while responding to its founder’s admonition that the institution be used “for the purpose of encouraging American Genius.” It is a tribute to William Wilson Corcoran’s vision that the gallery and school continue to find new ways to respond to this challenge.