Written by Margery Masinter, Trustee, Cooper Hewitt, Design Museum and Design and Decorative Arts Historian
In 1895, sisters Sarah and Eleanor Hewitt realized a childhood dream and opened the Cooper Union Museum for the Arts of Decoration with the objective of educating and inspiring American artists and designers. Sarah (1859–1930) and Eleanor (1864–1924) planned for years to make this happen at the Cooper Union, a free school for men and women founded by their grandfather Peter Cooper in 1859. They modeled their museum on the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, and their first collections consisted of what the French call “documents” of design. Like the Paris museum, the sisters established a reference library and a resource collection of design scrapbooks “bearing directly upon the objects to be studied.”
Growing up in Gilded Age New York, the Hewitt sisters were educated, fun-loving, imaginative, and social. Fluent in French, they were well-traveled and knowledgeable collectors who knew how to cultivate supportive donors. In New York, their father Abram Hewitt took the sisters to exhibitions, galleries, and auction houses, while their mother Sarah Amelia took them on shopping trips to Paris, where they acquired decorative objects and the latest fashions from the House of Worth.
Eleanor recounts the story of their first acquisition in 1887 of 16th- and 17th-century textile fragments “purchased at auction, purely for their own pleasure” at the James Jackson Jarvis auction. The Cooper Union Annual Report from 1896 lists a variety of gifts to the museum—several collections of “old” brocades and lace; 17th- and 18th-century drawings; illustrated books; designs for monograms and coats of arms; 18th-century watercolors and paintings of French interiors; and other “documents” of design. Friends and family contributed to the early collections, including engravings by Albrecht Dürer and Rembrandt van Rijn from Peter Cooper’s nephew, George Campbell Cooper. Eleanor recollected, “Poor Mrs. Hewitt suffered the most, and as she looked about her devastated home, would often say, ‘I wonder where that is?’ or ‘didn’t I have something like that’ thinking she recognized some cherished object” now in her daughters’ museum. The sisters also enlisted loyal friends as volunteers to compile material for scrapbooks, arrange and document objects, and perform a myriad of other tasks.
“Then came a wonderful series of happenings,” wrote Eleanor describing the history of the museum. Wealthy donors gave large collections of textiles, wallcoverings, prints and drawings, and decorative objects and furniture to the museum. These newly acquired collections rapidly established the young museum as a “working laboratory” of “beautiful specimens of art applied to industry.” Few restrictions were placed on the use of objects. Collections could be handled, measured, photographed, and sketched. The extensive library and encyclopedic scrapbooks were available to broaden the visitor’s education and visual vocabulary.
In 1901, the Hewitt sisters learned that Giovanni Piancastelli, the curator of the Borghese Gallery in Rome, wanted to sell his personal collection of ornament design sketchbooks by Italian artists. The sisters pursued this unique and valuable collection and surmounted all obstacles in order to obtain the first significant collection of design drawings to enter an American museum collection. The museum acquired 3,620 drawings in 1901, with an additional gift of 8,226 drawings in 1938.
In 1902, more than 1,000 rare textiles from the 13th to 18th centuries were given to the museum by banker J. P. Morgan. The gift was prompted by an inquiry from Morgan to Abram Hewitt about what his daughters were interested in. Weeks later he cabled: “Have purchased the Badía Collection of Barcelona, also the Vivès collection of Madrid and the Stanislas Baron Collection of Paris. I do this to give your daughters pleasure.” With this gift, the young Cooper Union Museum possessed one of the top collections of textiles in the world.
A museum benefactor from earliest days, philanthropist George Hearn formed the Council for the Museum in 1906 to finance and advise on collections for the museum. Eleanor called him “Santa Claus.” Composed of philanthropists, industrialists, and artists, Council members gave large sums yearly to the sisters for purchases during their European travels. The Council functioned generously until 1927 and grew to 50 members, including J.P. Morgan, business man Jacob Schiff, and artist Louis C. Tiffany.
When retired decorator Leon Décloux met Sarah and Eleanor, he was not only charmed by them, but also captivated by the museum’s practical plan of making models and objects accessible. He invited them to his villa for a lunch that led to the acquisition by the museum—over the years 1907 to 1921—of a superb collection of rare 17th- and 18th-century French ornamental drawings, decorative objects, and books of ornament and decorative architecture.
In 1913, Sarah and Eleanor were thrilled to be able to purchase 90 ornamental birdcages from the collection of Alexander Wilson Drake. For more than 100 years, exhibitions of this popular collection have enchanted students and visitors.
From 1912 to 1917, personal connections and family generosity led to donations of American works of art by Winslow Homer, Frederick Church, and Thomas Moran. The museum established major collections of watercolors, drawings, and preparatory sketches by these and other American artists.
Yearly gifts from the sisters’ wealthy philanthropist friends including Susan Dwight Bliss, Edith Malvina Wetmore, Elizabeth d’Hauteville Kean, Elsie de Wolfe, and others increased the museum’s collections. In addition, Sarah and Eleanor’s many purchases abroad of Spanish tiles, rare illustrated volumes, and French embroidered waistcoats—all “documents” of design—further enriched the Cooper Union Museum of the Arts of Decoration.
When Sarah died in 1930, the collection numbered 50,444 objects—textiles, wallcoverings, drawings and prints, and decorative objects and furniture. Today, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s collection numbers more than 215,000, building on the sisters’ work while embracing contemporary design and the digital world of the 21st century.
Cooper Hewitt Short Stories (blog). Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. https://www.cooperhewitt.org/category/short-stories/.
Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. “Welcome to Our Collection!” https://collection.cooperhewitt.org/.
Hewitt, Eleanor G. The Making of a Modern Museum. New York: Wednesday Afternoon Club, 1919.
Meet the Hewitts (blog). Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. https://www.cooperhewitt.org/category/meet-the-hewitts/.