After a five-year, $33 million renovation, Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art reopened to the public on Saturday and the public was eager to renew its acquaintance with the venerable museum, filling the entrance of the museum 15 minutes before opening.
The renovation has refurbished more than 38,000 square feet of the Wadsworth’s exhibition spaces and the historic buildings themselves. Areas that were previously relegated to storage have been reclaimed for display adding 17 new galleries and an exceptional 16,000 square feet of new exhibition space, a 27% increase. Artworks from the European collections that have been gathering dust in storage now have a chance to shine in the expanded museum, setting off the century-old Morgan Memorial Building, the first Beaux-Arts museum building in the United States, to its greatest advantage. This is the first time all the galleries have been open at the same time in 50 years.
The project took so long and was so expensive because there was a great deal of structural work to be done. There were leaks in many of the galleries and all five of the museum’s buildings needed new roofs with proper waterproofing. New climate control systems were installed in both the display areas and the storage facility to ensure the collection is protected. New lighting, restrooms, an elevator, wifi and signage bring the oldest continually operating public art museum in the country into the modern era.
The beauty of the historic buildings — the Gothic Revival Wadsworth building (1844) which housed the entirety of the original collection when the museum opened, the Tudor Revival Colt Memorial building (1910), the Renaissance Revival Morgan Memorial building (1910-15) — has been renewed with the uncovering of original architectural elements like concrete beams and window casings. Natural light is introduced through the placement of new skylights the restoration of a period one.
The Early Baroque gallery, now a rich, appetite-stimulating red, is home to two of the gems in the Wadsworth collection: Caravaggio’s Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy (1595-96) and Self-Portrait as a Lute Player (1616–18) by Artemisia Gentileschi which was the museum acquired last year.
The Morgan Great Hall with its 24-foot-high topped with vaulted ceilings and new skylights has been repainted in a deep blue shade poetically called “evening dove,” an elegant backdrop for the collection of important 16th to 19th century European and American works that now cover the walls in gallery style. Before this renovation, the Great Hall was painted white and exhibited contemporary pieces. Before that, it was a sort of raspberry color and while it had classical works like it does now, there were far fewer of them. When it first opened in 1915 there was a line of large tapestries on the walls and sculptures on the floor.
The inspiration for the Great Hall as it is today is one of my favorite paintings in the Wadsworth collection: Interior of a Picture Gallery with the Collection of Cardinal Silvio Valenti Gonzaga by Giovanni Paolo Panini. Panini, master of the architectural fantasy, painted Interior of a Picture Gallery in 1749. He set Cardinal Gonzaga in the center of a vast be-columned fantasy gallery with his entire collection of artworks taking up every inch of space on the walls, propped against the furniture and stacked on tables. The painting was a great success for Panini, inspiring subsequent takes on the subject of the fantasy art gallery commissioned by Étienne-François de Choiseul-Stainville, duc de Choiseul, who was the French ambassador to the papal court in Rome. Panini made a pair of works for him in 1756 depicting the great art and architecture of Ancient Rome and Modern Rome (modern in this case being mainly Renaissance and Baroque), then another pair on the same theme the next year (both now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art).