Joseph E. Widener
|Joseph Early Widener|
1921 portrait by Augustus John.
26, 1943 (aged 72)|
Elkins Park, Pennsylvania
|Resting place||West Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia|
|Residence||Lynnewood Hall, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania|
|Education||Harvard University, University of Pennsylvania|
|Occupation||Businessman, horseman, art collector, philanthropist|
1. Peter A. B. Widener II|
2. Josephine "Fifi" Widener Leidy Holden Wichfeld Bigelow
Peter A. B. Widener &|
Hannah Josephine Dunton
Joseph Early Widener (August 19, 1871 – October 26, 1943) was a wealthy American art collector who was a founding benefactor of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. A major figure in Thoroughbred horse racing, he was head of New York's Belmont Park and builder of Miami, Florida's Hialeah Park racetrack.
Born in Philadelphia, he was the second son of Hannah Josephine Dunton (1836 – 1896) and the extremely wealthy transportation and real estate magnate Peter A. B. Widener (1834 – 1915). Joseph Widener attended Harvard University, and for a short time studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania.
He married Ella Pancoast with whom he had two children, Peter A. B. Widener II, born in 1895, and Josephine "Fifi" Pancoast Widener, born in 1902.
Joseph Widener raised his family at Lynnewood Hall, his father's 110-room Georgian-style mansion in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. Designed by Horace Trumbauer and Jacques Greber, the mansion, along with its extensive and important art collection, was part of the huge fortune he inherited.
RMS Titanic tragedy
In April 1912, Joseph Widener lost his elder brother George Dunton Widener and nephew Harry Elkins Widener when they went down with the RMS Titanic. George's wife Eleanor was one of the passengers rescued from lifeboats by the RMS Carpathia. Shortly after, Mrs. Widener, in the name of her deceased son, made a gift to Harvard University to build the monumental Harry Elkins Widener Library, which opened on June 24, 1915. Not on the ship were their second son, George D. Widener, Jr., and daughter Eleanor Dunton Widener (1891-1953, married Fitz Eugene Dixon 1912). George Jr. created Erdenheim Farm in Whitemarsh, Pennsylvania, and would later become one of only four people in the history of American Thoroughbred horse racing to be named an "Exemplar of Racing" by the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. Mr. & Mrs. Dixon hired Horace Trumbauer to design "Ronaele Manor" (Eleanor spelled backward), adjacent to Lynnewood Hall.
Thoroughbred horse racing
Joseph Widener used his great wealth to pursue his interest in Thoroughbred horse racing on a large scale. Not only did he become an owner of a large stable of racehorses, Widener acquired the Elmendorf Farm in Lexington, Kentucky and the Belmont Park racetrack in New York, plus he built Hialeah Park racetrack in Miami, Florida.
In 1901, thirty-year-old Joseph Widener began purchasing Thoroughbred horses to compete in both flat racing and steeplechase events. He hired future U. S Racing Hall of Fame horse trainer, J. Howard Lewis. For the next four decades they combined to race fourteen Champions, two in flat racing and twelve Steeplechase Champions. Widener's steeplechase horses won numerous important races including three editions of the American Grand National with Relluf (1914), Arc Light (1929), and Bushranger (1936). His steeplechasers Bushranger and Fairmount were both elected to the U. S Racing Hall of Fame.
Following the death of August Belmont, Jr., Joseph Widener and friends W. Averell Harriman and George Herbert Walker, purchased much of Belmont's Thoroughbred breeding stock. For his Elmendorf Farm breeding operation, Widener acquired Belmont's very important sire Fair Play and the broodmare Mahubah, the parents of Man o' War. He also purchased a son of Fair Play named Chance Shot who would go on to win the 1927 Belmont Stakes and following the 1929 death of Fair Play would become Elmendorf Farm's leading sire. Widener had a life-size statue of Fair Play erected by his grave at Elmendorf Farm.
As part of the selloff of the August Belmont, Jr. estate, in 1925 Joseph Widener also acquired majority control of Belmont Park in Elmont, New York and would serve as the race track's president until 1939 when failing health necessitated his stepping down.
In 1930, he imported the stallion Sickle from Lord Derby in England who came to visit the U.S. that year and was Widener's guest at the 1930 Kentucky Derby. A son of the very important sire Phalaris, Sickle would produce 45 Graded stakes race winners and be the Leading sire in North America in 1936 and 1938.
Following Chance Shot's win in the 1927 Belmont Stakes, Widener's racing stable won the race two more times with Hurryoff in 1933 and with a son of Chance Shot in 1934 named Peace Chance. He also had five horses compete in the Kentucky Derby with his best finishes a second place earned by Osmand in 1927 and by Brevity in 1936.
Joseph Widener's father had had business interests in France and like other wealthy elite Americans of that era, maintained a place in fashionable Paris. In addition to racing horses in the United States, Widener also kept a stable of Thoroughbreds in France. Competing in French grass racing, his horses won the 1923 and 1926 editions of the Prix La Rochette and the 1923, 1924, and 1937 runnings of the Prix d'Aumale.
Widener also owned English Hackney horses who competed at various shows.
In 1930, Joseph Widener built a 40,000 square foot mansion in Palm Beach, Florida. where he would spend a good part of most winters. That same year, he purchased a controlling interest in the Miami Jockey Club and in 1931 renovated Hialeah Park. Hailed as one of the most beautiful Thoroughbred race tracks in the world, in 1979 Hialeah Park was listed on the United States National Register of Historic Places. Major races here were the Widener Handicap inaugurated in 1936, and the Flamingo Stakes, an important stepping stone to the Kentucky Derby for 3-year-old horses. Following Widener's death, ownership of the facility changed hands several times and after running into financial difficulties it closed in 2001.
Joseph Widener added to the extensive and valuable art collection he had inherited from his father. His collection included a dozen or more works by Rembrandt as well as those by Johannes Vermeer, Edouard Manet, Pierre Auguste Renoir and others. In 1939, Widener made a number of donations from his assorted collections including manuscripts of historical and artistic importance gifted to the Rare Book Department at the Free Library of Philadelphia. However, his most important philanthropic endeavor was as a founding benefactor of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.. Widener's 1939 donation of a vast collection was announced by U. S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the Gallery's opening ceremony. Known as the Widener Collection, the more than 2,000 sculptures, paintings, decorative art, and porcelains went on display in 1942. Joseph Widener's own 1921 portrait by Augustus John hangs in the National Gallery of Art.
In poor health for several years, Joseph Early Widener died at his Lynnewood Hall estate in 1943 and was interred in the West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.
The Mill (1645-48) by Rembrandt, Widener Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
Descent from the Cross (1650-52) by Rembrandt, Widener Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
Portrait of a Gentleman (1650-52) by Frans Hals, Widener Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
Lady with an Ostrich Fan (1658-60) by Rembrandt, Widener Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
- Joseph Widener, Paintings at Lynnewood Hall (Elkins Park, PA: privately printed, 1923).
- Peter A. B. Widener II, Without Drums (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1940).