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Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

The Hirshhorn stands as an enduring testament to the public’s interest in and one man’s commitment to promoting modern art.

It is an honor to have given my art collection to the people of the United States as a small repayment for what this nation has done for me and others like me who arrived here as immigrants.

Joseph Herman Hirshhorn

The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, an art museum focused primarily on modern and contemporary art, is situated halfway between the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument. Founded in 1966, Joseph Hirshhorn’s donation of four thousand paintings and sixteen hundred sculptures to the Smithsonian Institution was considered “the most important art donation for the Capital since the Andrew Mellon gift of the National Gallery of Art.”“Notes,” Joseph H. Hirshhorn Papers, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Washington D.C.

Arrival in America

Joseph Herman Hirshhorn was born on August 11, 1899, in Mitvau, Latvia, to Amelia Friedlander and Lazer Hirshhorn, the twelfth of thirteen children. Shortly after the birth of his thirteenth child, Lazer Hirshhorn passed away, leaving his wife as the sole provider for the family.

At the age of six, Hirshhorn emigrated to the United States alongside his mother and siblings. The family settled in Brooklyn, taking up residence in a tenement. Like most residents of the neighborhood at the time, the Hirshhorns found themselves in tight quarters—a small railroad flat in which three of Hirshhorn’s siblings slept on folding beds. Like his previous life in Latvia, Hirshhorn’s New York existence was one without excess. Very often, there was little—and, at times, nothing—to eat. Once, when his mother was hospitalized in the aftermath of a fire at the sweatshop at which she worked, Hirshhorn and his siblings were left to their own devices—“I stayed alive on garbage,” Hirshhorn recalled of the incident.Aline B. Saarinen, The Proud Possessors: The Lives, Times, and Tastes of Some Adventurous American Art Collectors (New York: Random House, 1958), 270.

The move to Brooklyn also facilitated Hirshhorn’s first engagement with the aesthetic, albeit in a slightly roundabout way. “The first thing my mother did was to insure all the kids for $500 so that in case the inevitable happened she’d have enough money to bury us. We used to get calendars. The calendars came out of the Barbizon School—Landseer, Bouguereau, Israels, Nasmyth, all those people. I used to cut up those pictures and put them on that green wall. . . . I kept dreaming about them, looking at them morning and night. It intrigued me. I think this is how my art world started.”Joseph Hirshhorn, interview by Paul Cummings, December 16, 1967. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Climb to the Top

From these humble beginnings, Hirshhorn began his climb into the upper echelons of society. A detour on the way to a sports competition sparked an early fascination with the stock market—“I made up my mind that some day I was going to come back and be a stockbroker.”Ibid.

A man with a will of steel and ambition to match, Hirshhorn did exactly that. He took his first job on Wall Street at the age of fourteen, as an office boy at the New York Curb Exchange. Three years later, in 1916, Hirshhorn left his job at the firm and became a broker in his own right. He took his small savings of $255 and traded his way to a fortune of $168,000 in his first year.“The Founding Donor,” Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, accessed April 18, 2017, https://hirshhorn.si.edu/collection/history-of-the-hirshhorn/#detail=/bio/the-founding-donor; “Notes.”

The same year he became a broker, Hirshhorn bought his first works of art: two etchings by Albrecht Dürer, a painter and printmaker of the German Renaissance. He paid seventy dollars for each piece, about $1,500 today.“Relative Value - US,” Measuring Worth, accessed April 18, 2017, https://www.measuringworth.com/uscompare. Barely a decade since he first received the calendars with the pictures he dreamed about, Hirshhorn’s early taste was largely informed by the museums and galleries he visited in his free time.

Albrecht Dürer Three Peasants in Conversation Albrecht Dürer, Three Peasants in Conversation, 1497–98. The Joseph J. Hirshhorn Bequest, 1981. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution. Photograph by Lee Stalsworth.

Albrecht Dürer The Rustic Couple (The Peasant and his Wife) Albrecht Dürer, The Rustic Couple (The Peasant and His Wife), 1497–98. The Joseph J. Hirshhorn Bequest, 1981. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution. Photograph by Lee Stasworth.

Sixteen years after he entered it, Hirshhorn exited the world of stock trading and brokerage in 1929, with $4 million in the bank.Hirshhorn, interview by Cummings. He subsequently moved into the mining business, and was among the first to mine the uranium reserves of Canada. He owed the bulk of his fortune to this business acumen. In a move that was described as “pure Hirshhorn” by Fortune, Hirshhorn took out a full-page ad in the Northern Miner that read, “MY NAME IS OPPORTUNITY AND I AM PAGING CANADA.”Saarinen, Proud Possessors, 271; Gene Hirshhorn LePere, Little Man in a Big Hurry: The Life of Joseph H. Hirshhorn, Uranium King and Art Collector (New York: Vantage Press), 73. His brashness paid off and Hirshhorn soon gained standing as a developer—and not an exploiter—of Canada’s resources, earning the nickname “Uranium King.”Saarinen, Proud Possessors, 281.

Collecting, Broadly and Quickly

Hirshhorn and Lerner, June 1981 Abram Lerner and Joseph H. Hirshhorn in a Sculpture Exhibit, June 1981. Historic Images of the Smithsonian, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Image #81-6664-14A.

Growing alongside his fortunes were Hirshhorn’s art collections. Unlike other buyers, he acquired art at near-breakneck speed, purchasing quickly and in large quantities. Abram Lerner—the man who would later became Hirshhorn’s personal curator and the first director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden—recalled a visit from Hirshhorn when he was still a young curator at the ACA Gallery in New York City. Lerner remembered Hirshhorn, who was at the time still a largely unknown figure in the art world, entering the gallery and saying to him, “You be a good boy and I’ll take that one, that one, that one, and that one.” Dumbfounded by Hirshhorn’s audacity and lack of decorum, Lerner “just stood there waiting for the keeper to come and get him.”Ibid., 274.

In addition to his speed, Hirshhorn also bought art strictly according to his own aesthetic preferences, eschewing trends and the advice of others. A bad encounter with a dealer early on turned Hirshhorn off dealers almost entirely, and even after he could afford to consult any number of dealers and advisers, Hirshhorn largely stuck to buying art based on his own tastes.Hirshhorn, interview by Cummings. Like his approach to business, Hirshhorn taught himself about the world of art by “working and looking and thinking and reading.”Ibid. And through this self-education, he formed his perspective on questions of beauty. “I don’t ask the advice of anybody. I don’t care if my grandfather or my friends or anybody likes it.”Saarinen, Proud Possessors, 275.

As a result of his self-reliant approach to collecting, Hirshhorn amassed a collection with definitive peaks and valleys, rather than the smooth plane that would have resulted from a more even-handed approach to acquisitions. Hirshhorn knew, and embraced, this aspect of his collection. “My first big love in art was Eilshemius. . . . I gave the museum 352 Eilshemius’s and I may own another 200 myself.”Hirshhorn, interview by Cummings. Hirshhorn also bought a significant number of modern artworks, including paintings by Milton Avery and David Burliuk.

Louis Eilshemius, Woodland Brook Louis Eilshemius, Woodland Brook, unknown date. The Joseph H. Hirshhorn Bequest, 1981. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution. Photograph by Lee Stalsworth.

David Burliuk, Milk Maid David Burliuk, Milk Maid, by July 1945. The Joseph H. Hirshhorn Bequest, 1981. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution. Photograph by Lee Stalsworth.

Not content with paintings alone, Hirshhorn soon began collecting what he is best known for: sculpture. He bought his first sculpture—a work by John Flanagan—during the Great Depression. “You have to wake up sometime. I discovered that sculpture had a third dimension and I was intrigued with it.” Though he continued to acquire both paintings and sculptures for the entirety of his collecting career, it was in sculpture that Hirshhorn found his foremost aesthetic passion.

Regardless of the form of art he was collecting, Hirshhorn also took pains to care for the creators of such works. Indeed, he took pride in his position as a generous benefactor to many of the artists whose work he purchased. When the artists were struggling—especially in the 1930s and ’40s—Hirshhorn took pains to pay them extra, provide for their families, and sometimes even feed them. “Those artists were in bad shape . . . I tore up, I think, either $88,000 or $92,000 in notes that they owed me.” Even many of the well-known artists Hirshhorn bought from suffered: “I remember David Burliuk couldn’t pay his rent many times. Often, I had to slip him fifty, eighty dollars.”Ibid.

He also recognized that art was an inherently public good. As soon as his collection began to take definite form, he “knew that this collection didn’t belong to a man, it belongs to the people.”Ibid. For Hirshhorn, such a commitment manifested itself in his dream to create a town called “Hirshhorn,” in the region of Canada home to his uranium mines. The town, Hirshhorn imagined, would be an “esthetic town” with a town square populated by sculptures and a museum—“paintings belong to the public.”Saarinen, Proud Possessors, 282. He was especially committed to the democratization of art he believed would come about as a result of the town. “Maybe the miners won’t be different because of the beauty, but their kids will.”Ibid. Though these dreams never came to fruition, Hirshhorn continued to maintain his belief in the common ownership and benefits of art.

Modern Sculpture from the Joseph H. Hirshhorn Collection

The magnitude and value of Hirshhorn’s collection was unknown to most people. This changed when, in October 1962, the Guggenheim Museum in New York City displayed 444 works of modern sculpture from Hirshhorn’s collection.Abram Lerner, “A Recollection,” Archives of American Art Journal 33, no. 4 (1993): 8–10. On view were works by Honoré Daumier, Constantin Brancusi, Auguste Rodin, Barbara Hepworth, and others.Modern Sculpture from the Joseph H. Hirshhorn Collection (New York: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1962), https://archive.org/details/modernsculpturef00hirs; John Canaday, “Art: Hirshhorn Sculpture Collection,” New York Times, October 3, 1962. The show was hailed as a success, and Hirshhorn was recognized as one of the world’s most important collectors.Ibid.

As a result, Hirshhorn’s collection became the envy of the world—quite literally. Officials from countries including England, Israel, Italy, and Switzerland jockeyed for Hirshhorn’s good graces, each hoping to acquire the Hirshhorn collection for their nations. Nelson Rockefeller was said to have been eager to acquire the collection for the Purchase campus of the State University of New York.Suzanne Stephens, “Big Deals and Bitter Endings, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden,” Artforum 13, no. 6 (1975): 57.

Catalogue from the 1962 Guggenheim exhibition Catalogue from the 1962 exhibition of the Hirshhorn Collection at the Guggenheim.

A Donation to the Smithsonian

Once the call came from President of the United States himself, however, Hirshhorn knew he had found the proper home for his collection. Much of the credit for the orchestration of the call and the deal goes to S. Dillon Ripley, an ornithologist and secretary of the Smithsonian between 1964 and 1984. Soon after learning of the extent of Hirshhorn’s collection, Ripley met personally with Hirshhorn and arranged for him to have lunch with Lady Bird and Lyndon B. Johnson at the White House.

As with many undertakings in Washington, politics played a substantial role in the creation of the Hirshhorn Museum. In 1938, Congress had passed legislation authorizing the creation of a “national museum of modern art.” Though the project had languished since the 1940s and the onset of the Second World War, Johnson was eager to revive it and, in doing so, to cement his legacy as a patron of the arts in the national consciousness. In Hirshhorn, he found the perfect conduit for achieving precisely that.

Hirshhorn himself was not immune to the legacy-making nature of the 1966 order. Marveling at his own fantastic fortunes, Hirshhorn observed, “Just think of me, little Joe Hirshhorn, my name is going to be on a building on the Mall in Washington, D.C.—in perpetuity.”Jeannie Rosenfeld, “Hirshhorn of Plenty,” Tablet, July 22, 2009.

The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden opened its doors for the first time on October 1, 1974, with the public opening three days later, on October 4. The excitement over the new museum was so immense that it held three inaugural events, with a total of fifteen thousand guests.Emily Fisher, “Hirshhorn Opening III: 10,000-Strong,” Washington Post, October 4, 1974. Among the crowd were politicians, power brokers, and kingmakers of the art world. All were breathless appreciators of the art: “a quantum leap for the Capital” was the description of the museum of one guest.

Interior Court of the HMSG on Opening Night, October 4, 1974 Interior Court of the HMSG on Opening Night, October 4, 1974. Historic Images of the Smithsonian, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Image #92-1647.

Hirshhorn Museum on Opening Night, October 4, 1974 Hirshhorn Museum on Opening Night, October 4, 1974. Historic Images of the Smithsonian, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Image #94-2860.

The building also elicited a great deal of interest, receiving both praise and criticism in equal measures. Built by the architect Gordon Bunshaft, the building that houses the paintings is a large cylindrical structure that sits above the expansive sculpture garden.“The Architect,” Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, accessed April 18, 2017, https://hirshhorn.si.edu/collection/history-of-the-hirshhorn/#collection=history-of-the-hirshhorn&detail=https%3A//hirshhorn.si.edu/bio/the-architect/. While some hailed the building as a fitting home to Hirshhorn’s collection of modern and contemporary art, the renowned architecture critic Ada Louis Huxtable criticized the building as “born-dead neo-penitentiary modern.”“Critics’ Pans and Raves,” Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, accessed April 18, 2017, https://hirshhorn.si.edu/collection/history-of-the-hirshhorn/#detail=/bio/critics-pans-raves/. For better or for worse, however, the iconic building has become identified with the collection.

Varga, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 1986 Colin P. Varga, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 1986. Historic Images of the Smithsonian, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Image #86-9580-37.

An Immigrant’s Story

Today, the Hirshhorn stands as an enduring testament to the public’s interest in and one man’s commitment to promoting modern art. Recent exhibits have included the shows Our view from here by Linn Meyers, Belief + Doubt by Barbara Kruger, and the immensely popular Infinity Mirrors by Japanese artists Yayoi Kusama. The sculpture garden holds pieces by the likes of Jeff Koons, Yoko Ono, and Alberto Giacometti. Though Hirshhorn passed away in 1981, his vision of the aesthetic as accessible to all has continued to guide the museum.

A self-described “little Jewish boy brought up in the gutters of Brooklyn,” Hirshhorn’s life and philanthropy is, in many respects, a fairy tale come true. He amassed a vast fortune—and art collection—during his lifetime, the legacy of which now sits on the National Mall. In 1974, when he spoke at the opening of the museum, Hirshhorn himself acknowledged the unique character of his collection. He attributed his success, in part, to the opportunities available to all individuals, regardless of background, in the United States. “It is an honor to have given my art collection to the people of the United States as a small repayment for what this nation has done for me and others like me who arrived here as immigrants. What I accomplished in the United States I could not have accomplished anywhere else in the world.”Philip Kennicott, “New Director of Hirshhorn Snubs D.C. to Hold 40th-Anniversary Gala in New York,” Washington Post, August 7, 2015.

"Juggler" Outside Hirshhorn Museum, 1974 “Juggler” Outside Hirshhorn Museum, 1974. Historic Images of the Smithsonian, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Image #92-1644.

Profile by Priyanka Menon, Dumbarton Oaks Humanities Fellow, 2016–17.