Kimbell Art Museum

By: Edmund P. Pillsbury

Type: General Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: June 18, 2020

The Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth is a legacy of Kay Kimbell, who before his death in 1964 directed his foundation to build and operate a public art museum of the first rank. The building is located on a 9½-acre site, donated by the city of Fort Worth, in Amon Carter Square Park, near the Amon Carter Museum and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. The museum structure consists of a series of cycloidal vaults enclosing 120,000 square feet of space. The graceful proportions of the vaults provide a unique method of natural lighting. The museum, which was built at a cost of $6.5 million, opened in October 1972.

The origins of the museum may be traced back to March 1931, when Kimbell's wife, Velma Fuller Kimbell, persuaded him to buy a British portrait from a loan exhibition of old master paintings at the Fort Worth Public Library. In 1935 the Kimbell Art Foundation was established to support the Kimbells' growing collection; the foundation lent paintings to the public library, to churches, to nearby colleges and universities, and to leading regional museums. When Kimbell died in 1964 he left his collection of several hundred works of art and his fortune to the Kimbell Art Foundation, the sole purpose of which became the establishment and support of the Kimbell Art Museum. Velma Kimbell reinforced this initiative by giving her share of the community property to the foundation. As cochairman of the foundation she also contributed her energy and ideas to the development of the museum until her death in 1982.

The Kimbells' collection, which focused primarily upon British art of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, formed the nucleus of the museum's holdings. After 1965 a growing collection of works from the beginning of civilization to the early twentieth century joined those from the Kimbell bequest. The initial growth in holdings was engineered by founding director Richard Fargo Brown, who served as director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art before joining the Kimbell in 1965. In addition to choosing Louis I. Kahn of Philadelphia as architect and working with him closely on the design of the building, Brown began to acquire works of the highest quality. Such paintings as Rembrandt van Rijn's Portrait of a Young Jew and Peter Paul Rubens's oil sketch of the Duke of Buckingham on horseback, both fine works on a small scale not generally favored by large museums, demonstrate Brown's collecting style. Brown died in November 1979. His successor, Edmund P. Pillsbury, continued to acquire works of outstanding quality. These acquisitions have expanded the scope of the museum to include the cultures of Asia, Africa, and Mesoamerica. In the early 1990s, with $7 million to $8 million to spend on new acquisitions, the Kimbell became the second richest art museum in the world. The museum does not collect art produced since the 1930s or the art of North America-fields represented in other museums in Fort Worth.

The Kimbell Art Museum has a substantial collection of Asian arts. It features Japanese screens and hanging scrolls, Chinese paintings, and Indian, Southeast Asian, Chinese, and Japanese sculptures, as well as Oriental ceramics. It has also assembled small but select groups of African and pre-Columbian pieces.

The museum is also particularly noted for its holdings of European art. Outstanding among old master paintings are Duccio di Buoninsegna's The Raising of Lazarus, The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs by Georges de la Tour, and major portraits by Holbein, Velázquez, Rembrandt, and El Greco. Such old masters as Giovanni Bellini, Rubens, Claude Lorrain, Poussin, Goya, and David are represented by important paintings. In 1987 the museum purchased, for a reported $15 million, The Cardsharps by Caravaggio, a painting that had been missing for close to a century. A featured work among European sculptures in the collection is Antonio Canova's Idealized Head of a Woman. Major schools of nineteenth and early twentieth century art are represented by Caspar David Friedrich, Corot, Courbet, Manet, Monet, Matisse, Picasso, and many others. Significant expansion occurred with the addition of Picasso's Nude Combing Her Hair, Cézanne's Man in a Blue Smock, Miró's Portrait of Heriberto Casany, and Façade by Piet Mondrian.

The Kimbell Art Museum has gained special recognition for its program of international loan exhibitions accompanied by scholarly catalogues. Exhibitions such as The Blood of Kings: A New Interpretation of Mayan Art (May 17-August 24, 1986), which prompted a reevaluation of the traditional perception of a peaceful Mayan culture, have placed the Kimbell Museum in the vanguard of art-historical scholarship. Poussin, the Early Years in Rome: The Origins of French Classicism (September 24-November 27, 1988) was the first major exhibition of Poussin in America. Other pioneering exhibitions initiated by the Kimbell and on occasion circulated to other museums include The Great Age of Japanese Buddhist Sculpture (September 8-October 31, 1982), The Paintings of Jusepe de Ribera (December 4, 1982-February 2, 1983), and Spanish Still Life in the Golden Age (May 11-August 3, 1985). The museum also offers a full schedule of programs to promote knowledge and appreciation of the collections and special exhibitions, including lectures, concerts, films, workshops, and tours. Community participation in the activities of the museum is encouraged through a subscription program.

The museum building-Kahn's last design personally supervised to its completion-has won numerous awards from the American Institute of Architects and other professional organizations. Prominent features of the building include the series of vaults, which are supported by four square piers on either end rather than by intrusive piers and columns in the exhibition space. The symmetry of the design is enhanced by the use of natural such materials as travertine and white oak, combined with glass, concrete, stainless steel, and aluminum. Narrow skylights the length of the vaults, with interior aluminum reflectors, diffuse natural light into the galleries, showing art objects to their best advantage. Porches and reflecting pools looking out upon a park setting, along with intimate courtyards variously adorned with sculpture, plants, and a fountain, contribute to the serene atmosphere. Facilities include the museum bookstore, a 180-seat auditorium, an art reference library, a painting conservation laboratory, and a restaurant.

Thomas Hoving, "A Gem of a Museum," Connoisseur, May 1982. Louis Kahn, Light Is the Theme: Louis I. Kahn and the Kimbell Art Museum (Fort Worth: Kimbell Art Foundation, 1975). "Kahn's Museum: An Interview with Richard F. Brown," Art in America, September-October 1972. Kimbell Art Museum: The Architecture Collections, Programs, Benefits (Fort Worth: Kimbell Art Museum, n.d.). Kimbell Art Museum: Catalogue of the Collection (Fort Worth: Kimbell Art Foundation, 1972).

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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Edmund P. Pillsbury, “Kimbell Art Museum,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 20, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

June 18, 2020

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