As a traditional liberal arts university, the visual arts have a long history on the campus of the University of Notre Dame. In 1874 Rev. Edward Sorin, C.S.C., hired Vatican artist Luigi Gregori to teach art and decorate the interiors of the Main Building and the Basilica of the Sacred Heart.

4th Floor, Main Building, 1895The Bishops Collection and University Library, 4th Floor of the Main Building, ca. 1895

In 1875 the Bishops Gallery, featuring 60 portraits painted by Gregori, and a Museum of Indian Antiquities opened in the Main Building. The latter grew dramatically in 1899 by a large donation of Native American objects from Rev. Edward W.J. Lindesmith, a diocesan priest from Ohio. He collected them while serving at Fort Keogh, Montana, as the first Catholic chaplain ever commissioned in the US Army during peacetime.

Small donations of art were also contributed by priests and professors throughout the early history of the University.

In 1917 Rev. John Cavanaugh, C.S.C., then president of the University, acquired 136 paintings previously owned by the Braschi family of Rome. 

Also in 1917 the construction of the University’s new library, Bond Hall, was completed. The second floor contained four large galleries for displaying the University’s art collection.


Wightman GalleryWightman Memorial Art Gallery, 2nd floor of Bond Hall, ca. 1925

In 1924 Charles A. Wightman donated 108 paintings of religious subjects in memory of his late wife, Cecilia. Starting in 1924 the second floor spaces of Bond Hall were named in her honor the Wightman Memorial Art Gallery in the University Library.

Dom Gregory Gerrer, O.S.B., an American Benedictine monk who had studied art in Rome, was the first curator and art conservator. He was supervised by the director of the library, Paul R. Byrne. Gerrer published a catalog of the collection in 1925, which was expanded and republished in 1934.

In the 1934 edition of the collection catalog Maurice H. Goldblatt is listed as the director of the gallery, and Dom Gregory Gerrer, O.S.B., its curator.


Groundbreaking for new Snite Museum of ArtMrs. Frederick B. Snite, Mr. Frederick B. Snite, Father Hesburgh and Katherine Snite Williams (daughter of Frederick B. Snite, Jr.) at Dec. 3, 1976 groundbreaking ceremony for the Snite Museum.

In 1952, at the request of Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., Ignatius A. O'Shaughnessy funded construction of O'Shaughnessy Hall, a new home for the College of Liberal Arts. It included the construction of the O'Shaughnessy Art Gallery, which opened in 1953 and remains today one of the primary special exhibition spaces of the Snite Museum of Art.

From 1953 to 1958 Paul R. Byrne (retired director of the library) served as curator of the galleries and collection, followed by James Key Reeve in 1958 and John Howett in 1961. Howett cataloged the collection, had it photographed, and was the primary force behind the 1966 Handbook of the Collection.

In 1955 Croatian sculptor Ivan Mestrovic moved from Syracuse University to Notre Dame at the invitation of Father Hesburgh and the Mestrovic Sculpture Studio was constructed for his use as instructor and artist-in-residence. In it he created numerous public artworks for the campus during the last seven years of his life.

In the early 1960s artist and faculty member, Rev. Anthony J. Lauck, C.S.C., was selected to serve as the director of the galleries. Through his New York and Chicago art connections the permanent collection continued to grow. Dean Porter, PhD, succeeded Howett as curator in 1966 and became director when Father Lauck retired in 1974.

One of Father Lauck’s last projects was to shepherd the gallery into accreditation by the American Association of Museums. This goal was achieved in 1974. The Museum has successfully maintained this professional status by undergoing a rigorous external review every ten years.

In December 1976, some months after the sale of his Chicago area business, Local Loan, to Mellon National Bank, Frederick  B. Snite, Sr., presented then-University President, Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., a $2 million check from the Snite Foundation. This very generous gift provided the funding for a new art museum on campus, to be named The Snite Museum of Art, in memory of his son, Frederick B. Snite, Jr, who died in 1954.

Frederick B Snite, Jr, in his iron lung with his wife, Tessie, and their three daughters in 1949Frederick B Snite, Jr, in his iron lung with his wife and their three daughters in 1949.

Frederick B. Snite, Jr., contracted polio in China while on a round-the-world trip with his family just three years after this 1933 graduation from Notre Dame. The viral disease paralyzed his muscles, but he survived for another 18 years by using an "iron lung" (tank respirator), which required him to lie flat on his back inside the machine while it assisted his respiratory system to function.Thus he became known as, "The Boiler Kid."

Apart from his confinement in the artificial respirator, his life was remarkably normal. He married Teresa Larkin of Dayton, Ohio, and fathered three daughters, Teresa Marie Snite Bratton, Katherine Bernadette Snite Williams, and Mary Snite Boardman. He traveled by use of a special van and railroad car between homes in Chicago and Miami Beach. Mirrors attached to the iron lung allowed him to read, watch movies, play bridge and enjoy Notre Dame football games. His trailer bus and iron lung were familiar sights, parked in the north end zone of the campus stadium on game days. He and his iron lung became national symbols of the triumph of human courage over debilitating illness, and the image of "The Boiler Kid" was frequently seen in newspapers, magazines, and newsreels. 


The Snite Museum of Art took four years to construct—from the December 1976 ground breaking ceremony until the November 1980 opening ceremonies. The 70,000 square-foot structure was designed by Ambrose Richardson, A.I.A., as a central three-story core bridging the adjoining Ivan Mestrovic Studio (converted into a gallery) and O'Shaughnessy Galleries. With this new structure the University was able to exhibit its rapidly developing collections of art within a professional museum environment.

Considered to be one of the finest university art museums in America, the Snite Museum's permanent collection contains nearly 28,000 works that represent many of the principal cultures and periods of world art history.

The Museum's collection contains objects that support the University's interest in diversity and provide opportunities for students to do original research. The Latino, African, African American, and Native North American collections enable the Snite Museum to interpret these cultures for students, alumni, general visitors, and schoolchildren who may otherwise have limited exposure to them. In addition, Mesoamerican and Latino collections have been developed to reflect the interaction of native and colonial Catholic religious traditions, in much the same way Caribbean collections can illustrate the confluence of African, Latino, and colonial Catholic traditions. Special exhibitions also support the Museum's interest in presenting works of art from other world cultures. 

The Snite Museum of Art's extensive collections of Renaissance, Medieval, old master, and nineteenth-century art reflect the traditions and history of the Catholic Church as the major patron of the visual arts during those time periods.

Collections prioritized for continued development include the following:

  • Mesoamerican, Spanish Colonial, Latin American, Mexican, and Chicano Art
  • Nineteenth-, twentieth-, and twenty-first-century photography
  • Old-master to nineteenth-century paintings, sculptures, drawings, and prints
  • Design and decorative arts
  • Modern and contemporary art

Fall 2012

Notre Dame Sculpture Park, and future site of a new art museum, corner of Eddy St. and Angela/Edison, across from Eddy St. Commons.

The Museum's contribution to the revitalization and development of the southern edge of campus is the Notre Dame Sculpture Park, begun in the fall of 2012.

As part of the Museum's outreach efforts, this public space will showcase sculpture exhibitions (starting with five works from the Museum's collection), be available as a venue for the contemplation and enjoyment of nature and art, as well as occasional academic class sessions, poetry readings, and musical concerts.

For more information, view the Sculpture Park page under Exhibitions.