History of the Corcoran

The exterior of the Corcoran, with lion statues.


William Wilson Corcoran founded the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1869. He donated additional funding to establish the Corcoran School of Art in 1878, which became the Corcoran College of Art + Design in 1999. The school's original 19th-century location at Pennsylvania Avenue and 17th Street was designed by James Renwick and is now the Smithsonian Institution’s Renwick Gallery. In 1897, it moved to its current location, a Beaux Arts building designed by Ernest Flagg. It became the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design at the George Washington University in August 2014, at which time the university committed to maintaining the original Corcoran mission to support the arts and assumed responsibility for the necessary renovations to the building. The exhibits of the Corcoran moved into the care of the National Gallery of Art. 

William Wilson Corcoran

William Wilson Corcoran William Wilson Corcoran

The Corcoran Gallery was founded to house the private art collection of William Wilson Corcoran (1798-1888). Born in Georgetown in 1798, Corcoran was the son of an influential merchant and former mayor. His attempt to start a dry goods business at the age of 19 was a failure, but later success as a financier led to the founding of his own brokerage firm in 1837. In 1840, he and partner George W. Riggs formed the bank Corcoran & Riggs, and within a few years they were doing a booming business as a financial agent of the federal government during the Mexican War. He retired in 1854 to pursue philanthropic work.

Corcoran made his fortune during an era when many successful businessmen and industrialists were investing money to endow charitable and educational institutions such as hospitals, orphanages, universities, libraries and museums. He was also one of the few early patrons of contemporary American art at a time when many American collectors were purchasing European works. In general, he would buy a work for his collection only after the artists had a well-established reputation. His holdings soon came to include a number of American and European landscapes and genre paintings, as well as some sculpture.

Corcoran’s philanthropic efforts continued through his life and, though he never served on the gallery’s Board of Trustees, he remained vital to its operation and continued to influence the acquisition of new works. He died in 1888 at the age of 89.

Founding the Gallery

As his collection expanded, William Corcoran began to open his home to visitors twice a week to allow them to view it. This practice soon led him to formulate plans for a public building to house and display the collection. In 1859, he commissioned James Renwick to design a gallery at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 17th Street (now the Smithsonian Institution’s Renwick Gallery). His plans were changed, though, by the outbreak of the Civil War. Corcoran, a southern sympathizer, retired to Europe to wait out the war, and in his absence the federal government seized the still-unfinished building. Only after the war was the gallery returned to its owner and completed.

On May 10, 1869, Corcoran deeded the building, grounds and a private collection valued at $100,000 to the nine members of a self-perpetuating Board of Trustees. The following year, the institution was chartered and exempted from taxes by an Act of Congress. The Corcoran Gallery of Art formally opened its doors on January 19, 1874 with an exhibition of 98 paintings and sculptures. By the end of the year, the collection had expanded to more than 300 works.

Corcoran instructed his Trustees to open the gallery free to the public twice a week. The remaining days they were to charge “moderate and reasonable fees for admission”, in keeping with the cost of maintaining the building and collection. Senator H.S. Foote commented in 1873, “If all the great capitalists that our country contains could be persuaded to imitate his noble example, our republic would so become paradise.”