John Jay II (1817-1894) played an integral role in the founding of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. His position as President of the Union League Club of New York City enabled him to bring together prestigious artists and philanthropists together to create an art institution that would best represent America’s unique national identity.
It all began during the summer of 1866 in Paris, France. Several high-profile Americans residing in Paris put on a Fourth of July festival in celebration of the United States’ ninetieth birthday, with exhibits, performances, and speeches. After years as a well-known civil rights attorney, John Jay II was invited to be the events key speaker. His speech noted that New York had become one of the world’s great cities, but it lacked one thing that the great cities of Europe all had – a national institution of art that would represent the essence of American culture: “and thus are the European masterpieces of the olden and present time being rapidly gathered for our country from the Atlantic to the Pacific; and this thought suggests another, that now is the time for the American people to lay the foundation of a National Institute and Gallery of Art, and that the American gentlemen now in Europe are the men to inaugurate that plan”
Jay’s proposal sent the crowd into fervent applause, and there was a buzz amongst the attendees about the notion of an American national museum of art. When he returned to New York in the summer of 1866, Jay was elected president of New York’s Union League Club, an organization comprised of the social and political elite of the city. This was the perfect group to organize the necessary people and funds to bring Jay’s vision to life.
The Union League Club was founded in January of 1863 during the midst of the Civil War, by members of the United States Sanitary Commission. Both organizations were founded to provide basic health services and information to the entire nation in a way that was neutral, despite the steep political divisions in America at that time. Sanitary Commission member Wolcott Gibbs (1822-1906) suggested that that organization take on the form of a social club that embodied support of the Union. In response to what they felt was the treasonous secession of the southern states, members wanted to establish a “strictly American type aristocracy” with emphasis on the public service ideal, and their vision of the American national identity.
The ideals of the club fueled Jay’s vision for this American national institution, and as its president, he went to work immediately making it a reality. His first course of action was to bring a well-organized proposal for developing the institution before the club’s executive committee. It took Jay and his colleagues a little over a year, but the club finally approved his proposal in October of 1868. Jay and club treasurer William Hoppin (1813-1895) then delegated the preliminary planning to the club’s Committee on Art. The committee’s two main tasks were to access the scope of the work, and to discuss the art that would potentially fill this new museum’s collection. This committee consisted of prominent American artists such as landscape painters John F. Kensett (1816-1872) and Worthington Whitredge (1820-1910), as well as sculptor J.Q.A. Ward (1830-1910), prominent art dealer Samuel P. Avery (1822-1904), and publisher George P. Putnam (1814-1872).
After months of work, the time came to hold a public hearing and formally announce the intent to create the museum. The meeting took place on November 23, 1869, before an audience of about 300 people, the majority of whom were representatives from prominent organizations throughout the city including the New-York Historical Society, Columbia College, the Century Association, the Manhattan Club, the National Academy of Design, and Cooper Union. There were also members of the city government, the Institute of American Architects, and the Central Park Commission in attendance, whose involvement created even more political and financial connections for Jay and his committee. The speakers at the event were famed writer William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878), landscape painter Frederick E. Church (1826-1900), and artist Daniel Huntington (1816-1906) who was a person friend of Jay’s. Bryant’s speech was particularly moving: “moreover, we require an extensive public gallery to contain the greater works of our painters and sculptors. The American soil is prolific of artists, the fine arts blossom not only in the populous regions of our country, but even in its solitary places.”
The persuasive words, and prominence of the speakers rallied those in attendance behind the cause, and the organizing of the museum had officially begun. It proceeded as a collaborative effort between public and private institutions behind the cause of creating what was essentially a gift to the American people. Fulfilling almost exactly the vision Jay expressed back in 1866.
At long last, on April 13, 1870, the Metropolitan Museum of Art was officially opened in the Dodworth building at 681 Fifth Avenue. The museum accessioned the first object into its collection in November 1870, a well-preserved Roman marble sarcophagus dating to c. A.D. 200-225. It had been discovered in 1863 in Tarsus, a city located in modern day Turkey, and was donated to the museum by J. Abdo Debbas, who served as American vice-consul at Tarsus.
Winifred E. Howe, author of A History of the Metropolitan Museum of Art stated in her book that John Jay II should be considered “in a sense, a father of the museum” for his rallying cry in Paris, and his contributions to the institution’s early development. The Museum recognized the importance of his role in its creation, and in 1888 made him an honorary fellow for life.