One hundred and twenty-five years ago today, on November 15, 1886, The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Board of Trustees officially approved the establishment of the institution's first curatorial departments—the Department of Paintings, Department of Sculpture, and Department of Casts.
When the Museum was founded in 1870, it had no works of art. It was not until William T. Blodgett's 1871 donation of 174 paintings, mostly seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish works, that the Museum became a "museum in fact." (See "Today in Met History: March 28" for more about the purchase.) By 1886, the outpouring of gifts and bequests to the Museum was so great that it seemed, as Calvin Tomkins notes in his book Merchants and Masterpieces: The Story of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, that the practice was becoming fashionable. The Trustees were grateful for the donated artworks, but they also recognized that they would need to raise money and hire staff to exhibit, store, and care for them properly. Museum President John Taylor Johnston highlighted the need for funds in his address to the Membership in the 1886 Annual Report: "The truth," he wrote, "is simple and absolute that the more art property you possess, the more it will cost to utilize it."
During the Museum's first decade, the Trustees performed much of the institution's administrative work on a voluntary basis. However, it became increasingly difficult for them to play this role as the collection grew and once the Museum moved from its initial 14th Street location to its current site on the Upper East Side. The Trustees appointed the Metropolitan's first salaried director, Luigi Palma di Cesnola, in 1879, but within a few years it was clear more help was needed.
In 1886, the Trustees unveiled a complete organizational overhaul "based upon the present organization of the British Museum." Senior administrative authority was vested in the director, with three new curatorial departments—Paintings, Sculptures, and Casts—reporting to him. The first curator hired was archaeologist and art historian William Henry Goodyear. He had originally joined the Museum in 1882, but with the reorganization he assumed responsibility for the new Department of Paintings, which encompassed "all the paintings, engravings, drawings, etchings, water-colors, photographs, prints, textile fabrics and books for exhibition, (exclusive of the Museum Library)." Goodyear was soon joined by Isaac H. Hall, who was appointed curator of the Departments of Sculpture and Casts.
During his tenure, which lasted until 1888, Goodyear oversaw the steady expansion of his department through several important acquisitions. In March 1887, Cornelius Vanderbilt presented the Museum with Rosa Bonheur's The Horse Fair, which immediately became one of the most popular artworks in the Museum. That same year, the Museum received a collection of 143 paintings through the bequest of Catharine Lorillard Wolfe, a benefactor of the fine arts who was among the earliest Members of the Museum. Her collection included paintings by many fashionable French Salon painters of the period, including a portrait of Wolfe by Alexandre Cabanel, and canvasses by Camille Corot, Charles-François Daubigny, and Théodore Rousseau. Wolfe's bequest also established a $200,000 endowment to support the preservation of the collection and to acquire additional works of art. Noteworthy paintings purchased with funds drawn from the Wolfe endowment are Auguste Renoir's Madame Georges Charpentier and Her Children, Winslow Homer's The Gulf Stream, and Eugène Delacroix's The Abduction of Rebecca.
Under Goodyear's supervision, the paintings collection grew further when in early 1888 Trustee Henry G. Marquand loaned to the Metropolitan thirty-seven artworks from his personal collection. Recently purchased abroad, the group included Anthony van Dyck's James Stuart (1612–1655), Duke of Richmond and Lennox and Johannes Vermeer's Young Woman with a Water Pitcher. Marquand soon donated them to the Museum, an act which Calvin Tomkins notes "transformed the picture galleries and went a long way toward placing the Metropolitan among the important museums of the world."
The 1886 reorganization of the Museum into curatorial departments—hailed as the "best plan" for the institution by its Trustees—brought order to its rapidly growing collection and laid the groundwork for its growth into a world-class museum. Today the Metropolitan's collections number over two million objects, and there are seventeen curatorial departments that study, exhibit, and care for them.