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This Weekend in Met History: February 20

James Moske, Managing Archivist, Museum Archives

Posted: Friday, February 17, 2012

«One hundred and forty years ago, on February 20, 1872, The Metropolitan Museum of Art opened its doors to the public for the first time.» When the Museum was founded two years earlier, it had no building and no artwork, but the institution's Trustees moved quickly to assemble the nucleus of its now-encyclopedic art collection, notably through the acquisition of a group of 174 old-master paintings that became known as the "Purchase of 1871" (see "Today in Met History: March 28"). One year later, in 1872, the Trustees secured the Museum's first exhibition space when they signed a $9,000, one-year lease for the Dodworth Building at 681 Fifth Avenue between 53rd and 54th Streets. The building had formerly served as a private residence and a dance academy.

Detail of the lease for 681 Fifth Avenue, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Archives. See the full image.

Facade of 681 Fifth Avenue, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Archives

Museum President John Taylor Johnston wrote a vivid account of the Museum's opening reception: "We had a fine turnout of ladies and gentlemen and all were highly pleased. The pictures looked splendid, and compliments were so plenty and strong that I was afraid the mouths of the Trustees would become chronically and permanently fixed in a broad grin ... We may now consider the Museum fairly launched and under favorable auspices… We have something to point to as the Museum, something tangible and something good."

Wood engraving of the Museum's opening reception published in Frank Leslie's Weekly, March 9, 1872

Three months later, the Museum's first superintendent, George P. Putnam, reported that over six thousand visitors had viewed the Metropolitan's opening exhibition, "including Artists, Students, Critics, and Amateurs from other cities and especially a considerable number of visitors from Boston." A notable reviewer of the opening show was author Henry James—then twenty-eight years old and still little known—who observed that through the Purchase of 1871 "the Metropolitan Museum of Art has an enviably solid foundation for future acquisition and development." James also praised "the altogether exemplary and artistic Catalogue" that accompanied the exhibition (see the catalogue in Metropolitan Museum Publications).

The Museum remained in its first home until 1873, when it moved to larger quarters in the Douglas Mansion on West 14th Street. In 1880, the Metropolitan opened its first building at its current location in Central Park.

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About the Author

James Moske is the managing archivist in the Museum Archives.

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