William Wilson Corcoran


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Collector and museum founder. Also a banker and philanthropist. An early enthusiast for American art, the lifelong Washington, D.C., resident studied for a year at Georgetown College (now University) before entering business and financial services. In 1840 he and a partner founded the highly successful Corcoran and Riggs Bank (later Riggs National Bank, now merged with PNC Bank). In the mid-1840s Corcoran began acquiring significant works of art, which soon included Hiram Powers's Greek Slave (1846; modeled 1840–43) and many works by Hudson River School landscapists. Five years after retiring from business in 1854, Corcoran commissioned architect James Renwick to design a public gallery for his collection. Corcoran spent the Civil War years in France, while construction was halted. Finally opened to the public in 1874, the Corcoran Gallery of Art remained for decades the only important art museum in Washington. The original building now serves as the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, while the Corcoran Gallery occupies a nearby building, its home since 1897. Ernest Flagg designed the larger quarters, and Charles Platt added a new wing in 1928. Corcoran's collection remains the core of much expanded holdings that position the museum among the nation's most important repositories of American art, particularly with respect to the nineteenth century. It also retains a smaller selection of European art, mostly from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. From 1878, in conjunction with his museum Corcoran supported the art school that continues today. In 1879 he published an autobiography, A Grandfather's Legacy.

Subjects: Art.

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