One hundred and forty years ago today, The Metropolitan Museum of Art made its first purchase of works of art—a group of 174 European old master paintings that became known as the "Purchase of 1871." William T. Blodgett, a founding member and Trustee of the Museum, facilitated the acquisition. A purchase of this scale would be remarkable even today, but in 1871, it was considered most audacious. The Metropolitan Museum was a new institution—only a year old—and possessed just one object (a sarcophagus), no gallery space, and no professional curatorial staff. The Trustees of the Museum, many of them collectors and connoisseurs, filled this role in addition to tending to the Museum's administrative needs. Blodgett was one such connoisseur who had honed his aesthetic judgment by collecting and commissioning contemporary French, German, English, and American paintings for his personal collection.
A twist of fate led to the purchase: Blodgett happened to be in Europe at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. The Paris art market was disrupted, and dealers were anxious to make sales. Blodgett must certainly have had the Museum in mind during his trip, but he likely did not anticipate the volume of paintings that would become available. In August and September, Blodgett purchased Dutch, Flemish, French, and English paintings in three large groups through the dealers Léon Gauchez and Étienne Le Roy. The dealers presented the groups of paintings as the former collections of several private individuals, but in fact they misled Blodgett as a tactic to move inventory en masse.
Blodgett intended to offer the paintings to the Metropolitan, but he first needed to convince the Board of Trustees that Museum funds would be well spent on the acquisition. In September, William J. Hoppin, a fellow Museum Trustee and art aficionado, was dispatched to the Brussels residence of Étienne Le Roy to assess the paintings. Hoppin wrote to the Board that the Blodgett purchase consisted of works of varying quality, but included in the lot were paintings by important artists such as Anthony van Dyck, Maarten van Heemskerck, Nicolas Poussin, Salomon van Ruysdael, and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, among others. After deliberating the purchase and working out the logistics, the Trustees unanimously adopted the resolution to approve the acquisition on March 28, 1871, viewing it as the foundation of what they planned to be a comprehensive art collection. (See a list of works from this purchase that are still in the Museum's collection.)
The pictures made their critical debut within a year, on February 22, 1872, when the Museum first opened its doors to the public. Museum President John Taylor Johnston wrote Blodgett—who was abroad at the time—a vivid account of the overwhelmingly positive public reception: "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."
The new Metropolitan Museum had gained its footing.
Adrianna Del Collo is associate archivist in the Museum Archives.
Baetjer, Katharine. "Buying Pictures for New York: The Founding Purchase of 1871." Metropolitan Museum Journal, Vol. 39 (2004).
De Forest, Robert W. "William Tilden Blodgett and the Beginnings of The Metropolitan Museum of Art." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Vol. 1 (Feb. 1906).