When celebrated American artist and illustrator Howard Pyle, a Wilmington, Delaware native, died unexpectedly in November of 1911, his tragic death galvanized his supporters and sparked the creation of what would become the Delaware Art Museum. For 100 years, the Museum has occupied a vibrant place in the life of the Brandywine Valley. More than a collection of beautiful objects, the Museum is a vital source of experiences, discoveries, and activities. From the start, the Museum was envisioned as a community project. On a cold evening in the early winter of 1912, a small, diverse group of Delaware residents gathered. Some were artists; others were entrepreneurs, business pioneers, and community leaders. All were good friends of Howard Pyle, who had put Wilmington on the artistic map with his inspired artworks and impassioned teaching. When he died at the age of 58 during a family trip to Italy, Pyle left behind a legion of grieving students, friends, and admirers. The saddened gathering decided on that winter evening that something must be done to honor the man who had touched them all so deeply.
The group formed the Wilmington Society of the Fine Arts, and generous donations from local patrons enabled them to purchase from Pyle’s widow a group of the artist’s most important works. When the charter of the Society was drawn in 1912, it boasted the signatures of Delaware luminaries such as Louisa du Pont Copeland and illustrators Stanley M. Arthurs and Frank E. Schoonover. More importantly, it stated a broad vision “to promote the knowledge and enjoyment of and cultivation in the fine arts in the State of Delaware.”
Those first Pyle paintings and drawings formed the foundation of a collection that would grow to include works by Pyle’s students, many of whom became leading American illustrators. The Society’s collection was soon recognized as a primary repository for original paintings and archival documents from the Golden Age of American Illustration (1880–1914). In its first years, the Society held a wide variety of exhibitions, first in the Hotel duPont and then in the Wilmington Free Library on Rodney Square. In addition to prominently featuring Delaware artists and students of Howard Pyle, the Society presented artwork of Old Masters and French Impressionists, American antiques, and Russian paintings.
In the early 1930s, the Society’s holdings were expanded when it was offered another unparalleled collection, this time a major holding of English art. Samuel Bancroft, Jr. (1840–1915), a Wilmington textile mill owner, had been “shocked with delight” upon viewing his first Pre-Raphaelite painting in 1880. His decision to collect Pre-Raphaelite art was highly unusual, both within the local community and in the United States, because the British Pre-Raphaelite artists were considered to be a radical art group. By his death in 1915, Bancroft had assembled a major collection, which has become the largest and most significant Pre-Raphaelite holding outside the United Kingdom.
The Museum’s art collection also grew steadily in size and influence. Important works of art were added to both the Pre-Raphaelite and Illustration collections, and a renewed emphasis on 19th and 20th Century American artists began to take shape. Major works by Frederic Edwin Church, Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth, and Paul Cadmus were all added to the collection in the 1950s and 1960s. The interest and patronage of Helen Farr Sloan was instrumental to the growth of the American collections. Following the death of her husband John Sloan (one of the premier American artists of the 20th Century) in 1951, Mrs. Sloan turned the artist’s estate into an exceptional philanthropic tool to serve local, regional, national, and international constituencies. Helen Farr Sloan first visited Wilmington in 1960 to help organize an exhibition titled The Fiftieth Anniversary of the Exhibition of Independent Artists in 1910. Impressed with the Museum’s collection and staff, as well as its dedication to collecting and exhibiting American Art, Mrs. Sloan nurtured a special relationship with the organization. Because of her gifts and scholarship, the Museum received more than 5,000 artworks, including the preeminent collection of John Sloan’s oeuvre and archive, with virtually every aspect of his career represented, making the Delaware Art Center the leading repository for the study of John Sloan.
In 1972, the institution was one of the first institutions of its size to be awarded accreditation by the American Association of Museums. Shortly after achieving accreditation, the Delaware Art Center was renamed the Delaware Art Museum to reflect the growing strength of its collections, programs, and constituency. It was clear that the Center had evolved into an institution of national and international importance.
The Delaware Art Museum has the largest collection of Sloan’s work (more than 2,600 objects) as well as his archives. Much of the Museum’s permanent collection is searchable here. Throughout 2016 records and images for Sloan’s illustrations in the Museum collection will become available through this site.