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Early Patron—Harriet Lane Johnston

Harriet Lane Johnston

Harriet Lane Johnston was the niece of James Buchanan and had served as official hostess in the White House during the incumbency of the bachelor president (1857–61). Spurred by the ambition to emulate and rival European culture and collections, and enabled by vast fortunes in industry and finance, American men and women like Johnston undertook the formation of private collections that were ultimately destined to enrich (or become) the new public museums of the nation. Johnston's small art collection would not have attracted much attention had she not bequeathed it in 1903 to a "national gallery of art."

The Johnston bequest reawakened the Smithsonian Institution's interest in art, and in 1906 a federal court ruled that the 1846 legislation establishing the institution also constituted it as a "National Gallery of Art," under which name the art collections were now officially gathered. The appellation held for thirty-one years, during which the collections of the museum were greatly increased.

Pictured above: John Henry Brown, Harriet Lane Johnston, 1878, watercolor on ivory, 4 3/4 x 3 1/2 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of May S. Kennedy

Adapted from William Kloss. Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution; and Smithsonian Institution Press, 1985), p. 11. Copyright Smithsonian Institution.