The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
The Renwick Gallery was designed by architect James Renwick who also designed the Smithsonian Institution Building, known as the Castle. The gallery was commissioned by the wealthy banker William Wilson Corcoran (1798-1888) to house his personal art collection. Construction began in 1859 and was nearing completion as the Civil War began in 1861.
A confederate sympathizer, Corcoran bankrolled much of the confederacy’s activities and fled to France. The building was then commandeered by the Union Army for office space. Corcoran returned to the US after the war was over, but was not allowed to open his gallery until 1874, and only as a public art gallery. It was the first public museum built in the nation’s capital. Corcoran’s collection soon outgrew the small building across from the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue, and he built a much larger museum nearby on 17th Street.
Renwick’s building was sold to the US government in 1901 and served for many years as the home for the US Court of Claims. During the 1960s, Pennsylvania Avenue underwent a redevelopment that looked at the state and use of historic buildings. Jacqueline Kennedy was concerned about the Renwick-designed building (which had been altered significantly when its grand spaces were chopped up into offices) as she sought to also restore the Lafayette Square area across from the White House. Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley toured the building and envisioned it as a unique outpost of the on-Mall Smithsonian. The gallery sits next to Blair House, the guest house for distinguished White House visitors. Ripley’s initial plan for the building was to display temporary exhibits related to the current international visitor to Blair House, highlighting the art, history and culture of his or her nation.
This Court of Claims building was transferred to the Smithsonian in 1966 and underwent significant restoration before it opened as a museum in 1972. However, the State Department proved uninterested in the link to Blair House and Ripley’s plan never came to fruition. The first director, Lloyd Herman, developed it into a museum of American craft. As he noted, the beautiful Renwick-designed building was a major part of the gallery’s exhibit. The gallery thrived as a home to American crafts and decorative arts, and was made part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
The Renwick gallery reopened this past week after an extensive renovation, which included the restoration of its original vaulted ceilings on the second floor, re-creation of the building’s original window configuration, salvage and repair of its original moldings and wainscoting, and preservation of historic finishes. The heating, air conditioning, electrical, plumbing and fire-suppression systems were replaced. The security, phone and data communication systems were upgraded. The building’s basement was renovated for curatorial and staff offices, as well as art storage facilities. In the interior, an all-LED lighting system was installed. Wireless systems were also installed throughout the building to be used for both artist installations and visitor interpretation. On the exterior, bricks were repointed, stucco was repaired, and the roof was replaced.
The museum’s debut exhibition is Wonder, an immersive artwork by nine leading contemporary artists. Jennifer Angus, Chakaia Booker, Gabriel Dawe, Tara Donovan, Patrick Dougherty, Janet Echelman, John Grade, Maya Lin, and Leo Villareal are each taking over a gallery, creating site-specific installations inspired by the Renwick.
James Smithson, founding donor of the Smithsonian Institution – what do you think his astrological sign was? Leo or Virgo? Pisces or Taurus? We don’t know and probably never will because we don’t know when he was born! Even the year of his birth was a source of confusion until extrapolated from school records. Initially, Smithsonian officials thought he was born in 1754 because the inscription on his gravestone says: “Sacred to the memory of James Smithson Esquire, Fellow of the Royal Society, London, who died at Genoa the 26th June 1829, aged 75 years.” We know the inscription was prepared by Smithson’s nephew because the reverse reads, “This monument is erected and the ground on which it stands is purchased in perpetuity by Henry Hungerford. Esq., the deceased’s nephew….” And these officials thought his closest relative would know his age – perhaps he did, perhaps he didn’t – or perhaps he provided the wrong age deliberately…
We now believe that James Lewis Macie, later know as James Smithson, was born in France in the first half of 1765. Why the secrecy? He was the illegitimate child of an English gentlewomen, Elizabeth Hungerford Keate Macie, and the recently elevated Sir Hugh Smithson, who was married to Elizabeth Macie’s cousin, Elizabeth Percy. The two probably met at Bath, a fashionable English resort near Elizabeth Macie’s home of Weston. In addition to children with his wife, Hugh Smithson fathered several other children with other women, notably Philadelphia and Dorothy Percy. James Macie spent his early years in France but then returned to England for his education. He completed his studies at Pembroke College, Oxford, graduating with a master’s degree in science in 1786.
In 1801, after both his parents had died, James Macie changed his name to James Smithson, adopting his father’s name, although not allowed by the courts to not inherit his father’s titles. After a life devoted to science, James Smithson died at Genoa, Italy, June 26, 1829. He left his estate to his nephew, Henry James Dickinson (later Hungerford), the son of his brother Henry Louis Dickinson. That nephew arranged for the monument, listing his uncle’s age as 75 years. Did he not know how old his uncle was or was the age misrepresented to cover up Smithson’s illegitimacy? The nephew died a few years later, in 1835, leaving no record of his knowledge about his uncle. Upon his death, a peculiar clause went into effect, leaving the remaining estate to the people of the United States to found an Institution for the increase and diffusion of knowledge. When the cemetery in Genoa where he rested closed, Smithson’s remains were brought to the United States by Alexander Graham Bell.
The Smithsonian has established that James Smithson was born in 1765 so this year is the 250 anniversary of his birth. We don’t know his birthday, so we get to celebrate the anniversary all year long! Happy 250th birth anniversary, James Smithson! We remain grateful for your generosity!
James Smithson, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Smithson’s Crypt, Smithsonian Institution Preservation