About the collection

Unknown (American), The Museum of Fine Arts, St. Louis, Missouri, 1881.

The Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University in St. Louis is one of the oldest teaching museums in the country. Established in 1881 as the St. Louis School and Museum of Fine Arts, a department of Washington University, the Museum was initially located in a neo-Renaissance building in downtown St. Louis under the direction of artist Halsey C. Ives. Building on a collection that already included such works as Harriet Hosmer's Oenone  (1854-55) and Thomas Ball's Freedom's Memorial  (1875), Ives began acquiring works by prominent contemporary European and American artists -- such as William Merritt Chase and Julien Dupré -- and expanding the Museum's collection of plaster casts and applied arts. In 1905, St. Louis banker and private collector Charles Parsons donated his extensive collection of fine art to the University's Museum of Fine Arts. Like many American collectors of the time, Parsons favored French salon art and landscape painting. His donation, which included Narcisse Virgile Diaz de la Peña's Wood Interior (1867) and Frederic Edwin Church's Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (1883), shifted the collection's emphasis away from applied arts and material culture.

In 1906, the collection was moved to the Palace of Fine Arts in Forest Park, a building designed by architect Cass Gilbert for the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition. In 1909, with Ives as director, the public City Art Museum was formed (now the Saint Louis Art Museum) and detached from the private Washington University. The University collection, however, remained on loan there for the next several decades. Over these years, the collection continued to expand, with the acquisition of works by old masters such as Dürer and Rembrandt, as well as Native American art and a large number of oil portraits, including William Hogarth's Lord Grey and Lady Mary West as Children (c. 1740) and Thomas Eakins's Portrait of Professor W.D. Marks (1886).

German exile H.W. Janson joined the faculty of Washington University's Department of Art History and Archaeology in 1941. Soon afterward he initiated an expansive program to revitalize the University's Museum. Janson deaccessioned over 600 objects and used the proceeds to acquire approximately 40 works of modern art, including examples of Cubism, Expressionism, and Surrealism, among other predominantly European modernist movements and trends, in order to build the "finest collection of contemporary art assembled on any American campus." Janson's acquisitions included Max Beckmann's Les Artistes mit Gemüse (Artists with Vegetable), 1943, Georges Braque's Nature Morte et Verre (Still Life with Glass), 1930, Theo van Doesburg's Compositie VII: "de drie Gratiën" (Composition VII: The Three Graces), 1917, Max Ernst's L'oeil du silence (The Eye of Silence), 1943-44, Juan Gris's Damier et Cartes à Jouer (Checkerboard and Playing Cards), 1916, and Pablo Picasso's La Bouteille de Suze (Bottle of Suze), 1912. Janson also planned for a permanent building on campus to house the collection, eventually leading to the opening of Steinberg Hall in 1960 and the Museum's new name, the Washington University Gallery of Art.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Janson's successors, among them Frederick Hartt and William N. Eisendrath, Jr., and prominent St. Louis collectors -- Joseph Pulitzer, Jr., Morton D. May, Etta Steinberg, Sydney M. Shoenberg, Florence and Richard K. Weil, and others -- extended the collection through the addition of significant works of modern art by contemporary European and American artists. These included Jackson Pollock's Sleeping Effort (1953), Eduardo Chillida's Rumor de Limites #4 (Rumor of Limits), 1960, Lucio Fontana's Spatial Concept, New York 22 (1962), and Robert Rauschenberg's Choke (1964).

The Museum has continued this legacy of acquiring leading contemporary artworks that represent major international aesthetic positions into the 21st century. Holdings acquired in the 1980s and 1990s include works by Lorna Simpson, Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, Kiki Smith, John Baldessari, and Tim Rollins. More recent acquisitions include works by such leading contemporary artists as Franz Ackermann, Christian Boltanski, Cosima von Bonin, Olafur Eliasson, Günther Förg, Isa Genzken, Candida Höfer, Michel Majerus, Edward Ruscha, Katharina Sieverding, and Wolfgang Tillmans.

In 2004, the Museum was renamed the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum and linked to Washington University's newly formed interdisciplinary arts center, the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts. The museum opened in its new building, designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Fumihiko Maki, on October 25, 2006.