MINNEAPOLIS INSTITUTE OF ARTS & JAMES J. HILL FAMILY
100 YEAR RELATIONSHIP
by Eileen R. McCormack
In 1913 when the Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts began planning for the construction of the present Minneapolis Institute of Arts [MIA] building, trustee and Saint Paul resident and art collector James J. Hill lent his expertise as a significant collector of works of the French Barbizon School.
James Hill did not stop at giving advice. He presented the Society with its first great acquisition, Gustave Courbet’s Deer in the Forest, When the MIA opened its doors to the public in January 1915, the majority of the art in the new building was on loan. Hill loaned twenty-two paintings by Courbet, Corot, Daubigny, Delacroix, Dupre, Millet, Rousseau and Troyon that were a significant part of the collection viewed by the public in the inaugural exhibition. On that 7th day of January in 1915, Hill’s speech contained an injunction to:
“Set your standard high and live to it. This Institute is to pitch the key for the community. Do not pitch the key too low.”
James Hill began collecting art in 1880 and continued buying, selling and giving away paintings the rest of his life. He became very knowledgeable and certainly developed a particular fondness for artists of the Barbizon School. He purchased over thirty paintings by Jacques Camille Corot and many by other Barbizon artists as well as a number of Barye bronze sculpture. His personal papers document his collection and contain inventories, invoices and correspondence with other collectors and his art dealers, Samuel Avery, Julius Oehme, Durand-Ruel family and Knoedler family. By the turn of the 20th century Hill’s collection was considered the State’s finest and nationally significant. In 1891 a new home at 240 Summit Avenue in Saint Paul was completed and Hill and his family moved in. The home contained a large gallery so the art collection moved in as well. Hill’s collecting accelerated and the walls of the gallery, hallways and public rooms rapidly filled with paintings. The gallery, which had a separate exterior entrance, was open to the public on a limited basis. Application for admittance was made to Hill’s secretary and permission cards were issued for a specific day and time.
James Hill had his dealers resell paintings that he no longer liked. Hill explained:
“I began in a modest way to make a collection. I bought a Rousseau, not a large one, fortunately for me a very good one. Then I bought a Corot, a small one. But these pictures were of first-class quality. [They] meant so much to me and so much more than about ten others which I had, that they literally drove the others out of the house, and where they went I do not know.”
And that is the how his collection evolved; he lived with, and loved, his paintings. They were his relaxation and his joy.
After the deaths of James Hill in 1916 and his wife Mary Hill in 1921, the collection’s art work was divided among their nine children. In the almost 100 years since their deaths, many of these pieces, and others from descendants’ personal collections, have a found permanent home at the MIA, including almost all the original loan by James J. Hill for the 1915 inaugural exhibition.
NOTE: James J. Hill quotes contained in The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin (1915). Image of James J. Hill from the Hill Family Collection, Minnesota Historical Society.