Joseph H. Hirshhorn


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Collector and museum founder. Also a financier. In 1966 he donated some six thousand works to the nation, establishing Washington, D.C.'s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, a unit of the Smithsonian Institution. Focused primarily on twentieth-century art, the collection boasts particular distinction in its holdings of sculpture, which include also examples of nineteenth-century work. Artists represented in particular depth include Thomas Eakins, David Smith, and Willem de Kooning, as well as British sculptor Henry Moore. Designed by architect Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the circular museum building on the Mall opened in 1974. Hirshhorn contributed a million dollars to its federally financed construction. Born in the village of Jukst, near Mitau (now Jelgava), Russia (now Latvia), Joseph Herman Choneh Hirshhorn arrived in New York in 1907. He grew up in poverty in Brooklyn, left school at twelve or thirteen, and began to amass his fortune through shrewd stock investments before he was twenty. Later he expanded his interests into gold and uranium mining in Canada. In the 1930s he started collecting seriously, beginning with living American artists (concern for their welfare heightened his passion for their work), mostly those associated with the American Scene movement, along with impressionist and other European paintings. From 1947 until 1955 he was married to painter and printmaker Lily Harmon (1912–1998), known primarily for figural works, especially portraits. In 1948 he sold his European paintings to concentrate on subsequent interests: recent art, American art of the early twentieth century, and sculpture from the mid-nineteenth century on. Hirshhorn maintained an estate in Greenwich, Connecticut, and later lived in Naples, Florida, as well as in Washington, where he died. Including a final bequest, he eventually nearly doubled the number of works of art in his original gift. He left the museum free to acquire or de-accession works. His widow, Olga Hirshhorn (1920– ), an enthusiastic participant in her husband's collecting activities after they married in 1964, maintains a small art collection and an active interest in the Washington art community. She continues to reside also in Naples, while summering on Martha's Vineyard.

Subjects: Art.

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