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The 1912 Exhibition that Birthed the Delaware Art Museum

jessie wilson and friends 1913 Library of Congress

L to R: Jessie Woodrow Wilson Sayre (1887-1933), daughter of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson; Miss Elizabeth W. Dodge (daughter of Cleveland Dodge), Mrs. D.H. Morris and Mrs. Harry M. Bremer.

What would it have been like to be a fly on the wall at the 1912 art exhibit that ultimately led to the establishment of the Delaware Art Museum? Let’s delve into this remarkable event.  

Prelude to the Exhibition

The Wilmington Society of Fine Arts announced, in the early days of November, an upcoming exhibition. Anticipation ran high among the city’s artistic, collector, and philanthropic communities. This fine arts display was not just any old gallery hanging. It would showcase works by the students of the late master illustrator, Howard Pyle, along with featured highlights from his own storied career. 

A committed group of artists, led by Frank E. Schoonover, N. C. Wyeth, and Henry J. Pack, immersed themselves in preparations for the impending event. “The selection and installation committee started their work this morning,” the News Journal reported on November 5. “Under their supervision, the canvas supports for the artworks were erected, and the process of arranging the pieces commenced.”  

November 11 finally arrived, transforming the DuPont Building’s Italian marbled auditorium into a vibrant venue, one filled with anticipation and excitement. Society notables, artists, and their friends gathered beneath the gleaming crystal chandeliers, adorning pearls and black-tie attire. “Like all private views there was as much interest in each other among the guests as there was in the pictures,” winked the ‘Morning News.’  

Hotel Du Pont Lobby 1912. Hagley Museum & Library
Hotel Du Pont Lobby 1912. Hagley Museum & Library

Amid the finery of the du Ponts, Tallmans, Bissells, Bayards, and Ridgelys, the gathering was indeed an illustrious affair. Nonetheless, the true stars of the show, the 150 artworks, commanded everyone’s undivided attention. 

The doors swung open to the eager public the following day, marking a moment the city’s residents had long anticipated. “The public opening was a great success, and judging from the first day the exhibition is going to be one of the most successful affairs ever held in the city,” glowed the ‘Morning News’.  

Afternoon teas, hosted by various patronesses, including Miss Phoebe Pyle, who wore black crepe paneled in royal blue, and Miss Eleanor Pyle, sporting a brown velveteen dress with a yellow cording around the lapel, added a touch of elegance to the day’s event, noted Wilmington’s society pages. 

Miss Jessie Wilson, daughter of President-elect Woodrow Wilson, stopped by on November 13, bringing an additional sense of prestige to the occasion. Her presence at the afternoon tea hosted by Miss Ellen du Pont likewise created an unforgettable atmosphere. 

Unquestionably, the artworks were the core of the exhibition. ‘The Dancing Girl,’ a piece by Gayle P. Hoskins, showcased his exemplary draftsmanship and vivacious color palette. While summering on Cape Cod, Katherine Pyle brushed the painting ‘A Portrait of Mrs. W.’, which captivated the gaze of many viewers. Friends had placed a green wreath tied with a purple ribbon beneath Howard Pyle’s ‘Marooned,’ a touching homage to the departed artist. 

The Birth of Delaware Art Museum

Running until November 18, the show left an indelible impression on all who attended. As the curtain fell on the event, it was clear that it had been a ‘complete success from an artistic standpoint.’ Organizers felt it had propelled Wilmington to a place among the nation’s art centers. 

The exhibition not only showcased the city’s artistic talents but also laid the groundwork for the Delaware Art Museum. Today, this museum boasts over 12,000 works of art, the state’s largest art collection. Howard Pyle would be proud. Even the fly on the wall would be impressed. 

Howard Pyle's "Marooned." Delaware Art Museum collection
Howard Pyle’s “Marooned.” Delaware Art Museum collection

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