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For over 40 years now, the signature cylinder-on-stilts architecture of the Joseph H. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden has been a stand out attraction on the National Mall. But most visitors know next to nothing about its namesake.

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A Latvian immigrant who came to the U.S. at the turn of the 20th Century, Joseph Hirshhorn rapidly worked his way up from helping out in New York offices to earning nearly $170,000 as a seventeen-year-old stockbroker in 1916. A decade later, he sold out before the Crash of 1929 and walked away from Wall Street with $4 million cash. Taking that money he went on to mine uranium and found the city of Elliot Lake in Canada. All along, while amassing this absurd fortune, the man collected art.

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In 1966, Hirshorn donated a collection exceeding 6,000 paintings and sculptures to the Smithsonian Institution.

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Inside, paintings by Pollock, Picasso, Matisse, and de Kooning provide a bit of context to the exceptional pedigree of works Hirshorn accrued. Outside, in the sculpture garden, visitors can peruse some of the same pieces the entrepreneur used to decorate his Greenwich, Connecticut estate in the early 1960s.

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Hirshhorn’s backyard fantasy land is built with an eclectic taste that encompasses both classic and modern abstract works. Mark di Suvero’s tall standing red steel beam work Are Years What hovers above many of the works with authority. Like many of the garden’s other works, the grimacing wrapped up figure named Crouching Woman is a more straightforward, although no less impressive piece.

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The work by 19th century French sculptor Auguste Rodin appears next to more modern pieces by di Suvero, Jeff Koons and other contemporaries. The fascinating dynamic between the multi-era pieces befits the National Mall’s premier modern art museum.

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It’s pretty wild that this distinguished Smithsonian collection came from the imagination and desires of one tasteful businessman. Thanks for sharing, Mr. Hirshorn.

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