Mapping Cultural Philanthropy

Back to Map About To Dumbarton Oaks

Peter A. B. Widener and Joseph Widener

Peter A. B. Widener
John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Peter A. B. Widener, 1902. National Gallery of Art, Widener Collection, 1942.9.101.

Joseph E. Widener
Augustus John, Portrait of Joseph E. Widener, 1921. National Gallery of Art, Widener Collection, 1942.9.100.

In 1942, Joseph Early Widener (1871–1943) donated to the National Gallery more than two thousand paintings, sculptures, decorative art objects, and works on paper in memory of his father, Peter A. B. Widener (1834–1915).Joseph Widener had offered the collection to the yet-opened National Gallery of Art in 1939. The gift could not be completed, however, until the federal government agreed to pay taxes to the state of Pennsylvania. This was accomplished through an act of Congress in 1942. The narrative that follows relies on and quotes Wheelock Jr. Peter Widener had acquired the majority of his collection of paintings in the late nineteenth century, favoring Italian High Renaissance, seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish, and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British art.

Peter A. B. Widener came from humble origins, but grew in wealth and political clout by means of shrewd investments made during and after the Civil War. In the years that followed, he began to collect paintings. An inexperienced collector, Peter Widener quickly gained a reputation as a wealthy “robber baron” who “knew little about art when he began collecting, followed bad advice, and generally made a number of questionable decisions.” Recognizing his own flaws, he and Joseph worked with professionals to deaccession weaker paintings in order to acquire better ones. Peter Widener became better educated about the importance and quality of the works he was buying, and he began to travel widely in search of masterpieces. In 1894, he significantly raised the level of the collection when he began to buy important Dutch paintings.

Joseph Widener inherited his father’s extensive art collection of over four hundred paintings in 1915. Through a combination of “judicious pruning and important acquisition during the 1910s and 1920s, the number of works was reduced and the quality rose.” By the time Widener donated the collection in 1942, it contained only about one hundred paintings, most of which were considered to be among the best available works of the artists represented in it. His donation also included works of sculpture, Chinese porcelains, and decorative art objects. The gift more than doubled the number of Dutch paintings exhibited at the gallery.

Profile by Noah Houghton, 2017 summer intern.