Centennial History

A Small Circle of Friends: The Beginning of the Delaware Art Museum

Howard-pyle-webA cold gray evening in the early winter of 1912 saw the gathering of a small, diverse group of Delaware residents. Some were artists; others were entrepreneurs and businessmen and women of Wilmington; all were good friends of Howard Pyle.

Howard Pyle, who had put Wilmington on the artistic map with his inspired and impassioned teachings and dedication to his vision of illustration, was dead at the age of 58. Pyle died unexpectedly in November 1911 while on a trip to Italy with his family. Left behind were a legion of grieving students, friends, and admirers.

This gathering of saddened friends decided, on that winter night, that something must be done to honor the memory of the artist and teacher who had touched them all so deeply. This group of Pyle’s students and Delaware personalities formed the Wilmington Society of the Fine Arts with the goal of preserving and exhibiting the works of Howard Pyle. Donations from generous local patrons enabled the Society to purchase nearly 100 of Howard Pyle’s works of art—these paintings, drawings, and prints formed the foundation of a collection that would soon include paintings from some of the most talented illustrators in America.

When the charter of the society was drawn in 1912, it boasted the signatures of such Delaware luminaries as Louisa du Pont Copeland, and illustrators Stanley M. Arthurs and Frank E. Schoonover. More importantly it stated a broad vision for the future: “to promote the knowledge and enjoyment of and cultivation in the fine arts in the State of Delaware.”

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Click here to download a two-page overview of the Museum’s history.
Click here to download a comprehensive flipbook of the Museum’s history.
Click here to see a chronological list of the Museum’s Presidents beginning with its founding in 1912.

An Extraordinary Gift: A Collection Finds a Home

Samuel-Bancroft-Jr-150Samuel Bancroft, Jr. (1840 – 1915), a Wilmington textile mill owner, was “shocked with delight” upon viewing his first Pre-Raphaelite painting in 1880. Born to a Quaker family with strong English connections, Bancroft’s decision to collect Pre-Raphaelite art was highly unusual, both within the local community and in the United States as a whole.In 1890, Bancroft purchased his first Pre-Raphaelite work of art, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Water Willow. He continued to add to his holdings, building relationships with living members and descendants of the original Brotherhood, including Jane and Jenny Morris, Winifred Sandys, and Phillip Burne-Jones. As he became more sophisticated in his taste, he sought out archival documents as well as artwork. By the time of his death in 1915, he had assembled what is today the largest and most significant Pre-Raphaelite collection outside the United Kingdom.

38const_3In 1935, the family of Samuel Bancroft, Jr., donated his art and manuscript collection to the Wilmington Society of the Fine Arts. In addition, the Bancroft family donated 11 acres of gently rolling countryside near Kentmere Parkway with the provision that a museum be built on the site to house the Pre-Raphaelite collection. As a testament to both the dedication and generosity of the officers and members of the Society as well as the residents of Wilmington and Delaware, $350,000 was raised during the heart of the Depression for the museum construction and its endowment.

In June 1938, the newly named Delaware Art Center opened to the public with galleries devoted to the British Pre-Raphaelites, Howard Pyle and his students, and a growing collection of American art beyond illustration.

The Wilmington Academy of Art joined with the Delaware Art Center in 1943 to establish the Center’s first educational programs. By 1954, nearly 500 students a year from across Delaware were taking part in a wide variety of studio art courses.

The overwhelming success of the educational programs triggered the generosity of H. Fletcher Brown, who in his will, provided for the construction of new studios and classrooms. The H. Fletcher Brown Education wing opened to the public with great fanfare in the fall of 1956.

Steadily, the art collection grew along with the changing shape of the Museum building. Important works of art were added to the Pre-Raphaelite and illustration collections, and a renewed emphasis on 19th- and 20th-century American artists began to take shape. Major works by Frederic Edwin Church, Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth, and Paul Cadmus were all added to the collection in a relatively short period of time in the 1950s and 1960s.


This documentary film was created in 1953 for the purposes of extending knowledge about the Delaware Art Center, now the Delaware Art Museum.

A Singular Friend: Helen Farr Sloan

helen_tnHelen Farr Sloan (1911 – 2005) quietly created a remarkable profile as an American philanthropist. Following the death of her husband John Sloan (1871 – 1951), one of the premier American artists of the 20th century, Mrs. Sloan organized his estate and turned it into an exceptional philanthropic instrument to serve local, regional, national, and international constituencies.

Helen Farr Sloan visited Wilmington for the first time in 1960 to help organize an exhibition titled The Fiftieth Anniversary of the Exhibition of Independent Artists in 1910. The original exhibition had been organized by Sloan and included several of his paintings and drawings. Impressed with the collection, the staff, and the Museum’s dedication to collecting and exhibiting American art, Mrs. Sloan began to take a keen interest in the Delaware Art Center.

Beginning in 1961, and continuing throughout her life, Helen Farr Sloan nurtured a special relationship with the Delaware Art Museum. Because of her gifts and scholarship, the Delaware Art Museum received more than 5,000 works, including the preeminent collection of John Sloan’s art, with virtually every aspect of his career represented. This has made the Delaware Art Museum the leading repository for the study of John Sloan, who was noted for his realistic images of turn-of-the-century New York City.

Accreditation from the American Association of Museums in 1972 prompted the Art Center’s formal name change to the Delaware Art Museum. Along with this name change came the recognition that the Museum and its art works had evolved into a collection of national and international importance.

With the approach of the 21st century came a renewed commitment to enhance the strengths of the Museum—British Pre-Raphaelite art, American illustration, John Sloan, and 19th- and early-20th-century American art all saw major additions in the 1980s and 1990s. In addition, contemporary American artists began to share the spotlight in the increasingly inclusive Museum collection. Works by contemporary masters such as Robert Motherwell, George Segal, and Jim Dine were all added to the growing collection near the turn of the century.

Sadly, Helen Farr Sloan passed away on December 13, 2005, at the age of 94. She will be remembered as a patron of the arts, an inspired educator, and an accomplished artist.

Looking at the Museum: A Video History

The below video segment comes to us courtesy of Wilmington.In the Middle of it All, a television program airing on Wilmington’s WITN (Channel 22).