The Collector

William H. Gerdts talks with NEH Chairman Bruce Cole about American art, scholarship, and his fixation with pears.

HUMANITIES, September/October 2007, Volume 28, Number 5

SCHOLAR, CURATOR, AND COLLECTOR WILLIAM H. GERDTS is the author of over twenty-five books on American art. An expert in American Impressionism, he is also well known for his work on nineteenth-century American still-life painting, of which he is a distinguished collector as well. He is also a bibliophile. An expert recently looked over his personal library of illustrative books on painting, sculpture, and graphic art, and called it the greatest American art library in the world.


BRUCE COLE: Where did you grow up and how did you first become interested in art?

WILLAM H. GERDTS: I was born in Jersey City. After my first nine years in Jersey City, my parents moved to Jackson Heights, Queens, and I went to Public School 69. It was the first public school in the city of New York to give both French and typing.

My French teacher was Miss Maloney, which is one reason my French has an Irish lilt to it. Miss Maloney used to rap the knuckles of all the students. A good teacher though.

Then I went to Newtown High School—a public school—and I took French. And then I went to Amherst College, and you had to take a foreign language, so I took French. And they said, “What French are you going to take?” And I said, “Intermediate.” And they said, “No, we’re going to put you into Advanced.”

Strangely enough, the man who taught it was named Reginald French. We read French writers like Lamartine, and we looked at French paintings like the Impressionists’, and when I came home to New York about once a month, I would go to the museums.

Cole: Did you have any art in your home?

Gerdts: No. If it had not been for Reginald French, I might not have become interested.

I wanted to go to Harvard Law School. And I knew you had to have very good grades to get in. In my first five semesters at Amherst, I took easy courses and I got good grades. So, I thought, in my last three semesters, I could take courses that were more challenging.

Amherst has a very, very fine collection of American paintings that were left to them by the Pratt brothers of Standard Oil. Herbert Pratt collected American paintings up to the Civil War, and George from the Civil War through Bellows and the Ashcan School.

Charlie Morgan ran the department more or less single-handedly, and ran the art museum, which is now the Mead Art Museum. He was a classicist. But he gave a course in American art because he had the collection, and he felt he ought to teach with it. I took the course, and I loved it. So that’s what got me into American art.

Cole: Why did you love the course?

Gerdts: I thought the pictures were beautiful and varied, and because they were there. I was living with them.

It was a summer course. And I took it in order not to go home. Taking it meant that I would graduate in February, but law school wasn’t going to begin until September. I had to do something with the next several months.

Now, I liked Amherst, and it’s very attractive there and all. So I went around and asked for a job. The art department was the only place that had a full-time job, because they were moving into the new Mead Art Museum.

And they gave me the job of re-cataloging the collection. Which sounds like it’s sort of nothing, and it sort of was. They just sat me in the back room of this building where they kept all the furniture and all the paintings and everything, waiting for the Mead to open.

But I could do cataloging. Because I had taken typing in high school. And I really got to love what I was doing.

I remember there was a shaving cabinet, an eighteenth century shaving cabinet with one drawer. The drawer was locked, and there was no key. I picked it up and shook it. And there was something in it.

So, in true conservation fashion, I got a screwdriver out and pried open the drawer and probably destroyed it. But inside was a miniature by James Peale. I brought it to the director. And what did he care about the shaving cabinet? He had a James Peale miniature.

Well, things like that happened. So that really got me into American art.

Cole: You were actually sitting in a room where there was real art and you were trying to figure out for yourself, through cataloging, what it was.

Gerdts: Yes. And, I guess, I must’ve felt that I had some kind of a visual sense. A visual sense to which art appealed and with which I felt I could make judgments. I think there are an awful lot of art historians who don’t have an eye. You know, like being tone deaf, I think you can be eye deaf.

Cole: What does it mean to have an eye?

Gerdts: It’s the ability to see quality in works of art that might not ordinarily appeal to even the average art historian. It has to do with being able to recognize the hand of an artist, even when they’re not at their most typical.

It means being able to enjoy the richness, the color, the forms, to get an idea of what the artist was thinking when the artist did the picture. Why the artist put the line there, rather than here. And this color there, rather than that color there.

Cole: You went to law school?

Gerdts: I went to law school in September 1949. And classes, particularly for first-year students, are in huge auditoriums, you know, for three hundred students.

And then, down there at the end was somebody at a lectern, talking about tarts or torts. And around the rooms, these huge rooms, were these portraits of eminent jurists, and portraits of other people too, including portraits, by the way, that I had studied at Amherst.

After four days of that, I left at noontime, or whatever, and went over to the dean, the graduate dean, and said, “Listen, I’m in the law school. But I think I want to go into fine arts.”

Fortunately, the dean wasn’t there. There was an assistant dean, who was young. He thought this was very funny. He said, “Well, if the fine arts department will let you in, it’s okay with us. We’ll just transfer the funds from the law school to the graduate school.”

Everything was serendipitous, incredibly so. The dean’s office was right next to the Fogg Art Museum.

So, I just went into the next building. Mary Wadsworth, the secretary, was there. She might not have been, but she was. I said, "I’d like to see the head of the department," who was Charles Kuhn, who might not have been there, but he was.

He let me in. I explained my story. In his graduate work, one of his fellow students had been Charles Morgan, who was head of the art history department at Amherst. So, they knew each other fairly well.

He picked up the phone, called Charles Morgan. Charles Morgan might not have been there, but he was. And he said, “Charlie, I’ve got this kid sitting here, and he said he took these courses from you. And that he worked for you for seven months in the museum. And he wants to come into our program. Should I let him in?”

Charles Morgan said, “Yes. He did that. And yes, let him in.” And so Prof. Kuhn said to me, “You’re in.”

And then I called home. Mother flew to Boston, and she didn’t use an airplane.

Cole: And then what?

Gerdts: My interest was American art. But at Harvard they gave practically no American art courses.

It’s quite different now, of course. But the only American art I ever saw was in a back corridor, which was lined with some American pictures.

There was a wonderful teacher there named Ben Rowland. Ben’s field was Asian art, southern Asian art—India and Southeast Asia. And his second field was Trecento, Italian. He was also a professional watercolorist. We have one of his paintings at home. He showed it at Doll and Richards Gallery in Boston.

The powers that be at Harvard called Ben in and said, “We need somebody to teach an occasional—and very occasional—American art course. You’re an American artist, therefore, you teach the course.” So he taught this course. I never took it. Because it was the same as the one I had already had with Charlie Morgan at Amherst. Instead, I was his assistant. I was a TA for him. But I pursued American art by taking tutorials with Ben.


Cole: During this period when all the American art at Harvard was in some back corridor, when no one was teaching American art, what was the state of American art history?

Gerdts: In 1948, when I was studying under Charlie Morgan, I’ll bet you couldn’t have found twelve other courses in American art being given in the United States.

Cole: Was this because American art was seen as kind of a stepchild of the great European tradition?

Gerdts: More than this: a stepchild, imitative, and a rather poor reflection thereof. When my wife—who’s ten years younger than I—was an undergraduate, she wanted to do an honors thesis on John Singer Sargent’s watercolors. The professor told her Sargent wasn’t worth working on.

Cole: But there’s no doubt that American art is now deemed worthy of study. Because, all of a sudden, we’re no longer ashamed of our art. We no longer see it as derivative. And we start to celebrate our art. How did that all come about?

Gerdts: Obviously, there’s no single cause. But one of the major issues was the formation of the M. and M. Karolik Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Maxim Karolik was a Russian opera singer who came over to this country in 1922 and married a very wealthy Bostonian lady of a very high family, and then had lots and lots of money. And it was a very good marriage, strangely enough.

And they built up various collections. There was a collection of American decorative arts. There was eventually a collection of American drawings, watercolors, etc. But the collection that’s best known is the collection of American paintings, particularly from about 1825 to 1875.

There were art historians before the Karolik show. One of the greatest in our field, Lloyd Goodrich, had become interested in Winslow Homer as early as 1924.

This is obviously an oversimplification. But there were two triumvirates. There was Eakins, Homer, and Ryder; and there was Whistler, Sargent, and Cassatt.

But, of course, Eakins, Homer, and Ryder were better artists, because they stayed home. While Cassatt, Sargent, and Whistler expatriated.

But they were all—the six of them were recognized as American artists who transcended the usual second-rateness of American art. George Inness might be thrown in as a seventh. But that would be it.

Cole: Did Karolik collect American art because he didn’t have the prejudice that a lot of Americans had towards American art?

Gerdts: I think so. I think he got into Boston society and started looking around at Boston art. And not just Boston art. But a lot of it is was New England art.

And, mind you, he had a lot of money. But I know he was buying these pictures—$200, $300—pictures that, if he was still alive, might go for a million dollars now.

Cole: The good old days.

Gerdts: I got into collecting in the 1950s. The man I had lunch with today, he’s sort of the last surviving member of a group of collectors. He didn’t have a lot of money. “In 1948, when I was studying under Charlie Morgan, I’ll bet you couldn’t have found twelve other courses in American art being given in the United States.” We used to go to a shop on Third Avenue, run by a man named George Guerry, and we’d go there about once a week. He didn’t have pictures on his walls. There would be a stack of pictures, ten here, ten here, ten here, and we would—this wasn’t exactly a plan—we would all find ourselves there on Saturdays, passing through these, and buying pictures at $35, $50, and whatnot.

We were all friends. And we were all collecting nineteenth-century American paintings. Then around 1960, the market really started to hit the big time, and it started primarily because of Dan and Rita Fraad, and Ray and Margaret Horowitz.

Dan was a businessman, actually in the cleaning business. I mean he cleaned out airplanes and other big stuff. Ray was his lawyer.

And it was something like, Dan said to Margaret, who was beginning to collect paintings, you know, I’d like to buy Ray a picture. Here’s some money. Would you pick something?

And she did. The Horowitzes concentrated on American Impressionist paintings. That helped put the American Impressionist market on the map.

Then other collectors started to emulate them. And the prices started soaring from a thousand dollars, maybe, for a Twachtman to a million dollars for a Twachtman, in a very short period of time.

With this growth of interest among the collectors who were also, of course, benefactors to institutions, the institutions started doing exhibitions of American art.

And because the institutions were doing exhibitions of American art, the schools began to have a lot more courses in American art, in part to train students to become museum people. It was a snowball.

Cole: The change was collector-driven.

Gerdts: Collector-driven. And dealer-driven. It all started with portrait shows in the 1880s. They continued in the ’90s. There would be a portrait show every year. Portraits of beautiful women, portraits of lovely children, often to benefit orthopedic hospitals or something like that, you know, that kind of thing. And it stayed portraiture well into the early years of the twentieth century.

Finally, there was a big show in 1945, shared by the Art Institute of Chicago and the Whitney Museum, which was on the Hudson River School. Actually, it was a very funny show, because it wasn’t on the Hudson River School. It was on all of nineteenth-century American landscape.

The Fogg Art Museum, for some reason, sometime in the 1930s, did a small show on American genre painting.

There were these isolated examples. But the Karolik Collection was a huge collection. The opening of it at the Boston Museum was a tremendous opening.

John I. H. Baur, one of the great scholars in our field, he and Lloyd Goodrich were very close. Lloyd was director of the Whitney Museum, John was assistant director, but he had been the curator at the Brooklyn Museum and did some wonderfully innovative shows there in the 1940s.

John Baur wrote the catalog for the Karolik Collection. And it was three or four inches thick. I’m sure it was the biggest book that had to do with American art at the time. And that came out in the late ’40s. For all my collectors in the ’50s, that was their prime book. Because there wasn’t much else. There were a few other survey books, surveys for American art.

Cole: What was it in our culture that allowed us to become not only interested but proud of American art?

Gerdts: What led Americans to value their own art? One could be very crass about it and say that when Americans could no longer afford the Monets and the Cézannes, then they started buying the Childe Hassams. Money was one factor.

But there is also an element of national pride. I’ve never even thought about this before, but as American-born Abstract Expressionism became the dominant contemporary art form, it may have led historians and collectors to look back and say, “Well, hey, maybe we weren’t so bad in the olden days.” Because the two happen at the same time, you know.

Cole: Is there a one-volume history of American art that you can recommend to our readers?

Gerdts: Well, there are many of them now. And different people have different favorites. Milton Brown wrote a book on American painting, but then the publisher had him reduce that book in size, and add photography, decorative arts, architecture, sculpture, and whatnot. And I think that book [American Art] is pretty good.

There is a woman named Frances Pohl, who, in the interests of political correctness, has written a book [Framing America] which totally distorts both the developing of the arts in this country and denigrates its most significant figures, in order to deal almost totally with gender, racial, social, political, and economic issues, but seldom artistic ones. Thus, America’s most celebrated neoclassic sculptor, Hiram Powers, is reduced to one reproduced image, while the very minor, and far less talented Edmonia Lewis (but half Native American, half African American) has three images on view. Washington Allston, our first and most original painter of historical, grand-manner painting, internationally celebrated in his time, is reduced to one reproduction, this of an attractive but minor landscape. His most celebrated picture, Belshazzar’s Feast, is not even mentioned. Winslow Homer, unarguably our finest and most original painter of the sea—works that many scholars here and abroad consider America’s greatest pictures—is represented by three early works. But none of his finest and most original pictures are illustrated or discussed since they cannot sustain the preordained ideological issues the author has imposed upon her so-called history of American art. But this book is used in a lot of courses now.

Cole: So what’s the state of scholarship on American art today?

Gerdts: Well, I really don’t like art history anymore. Because I find that most art history that I read falls—this is obviously a generalization—into two categories. Either it’s repetition of what has been said over and over, but it’s for a different catalog or a different essay, or whatnot. And that’s boring.

Or it goes so far out of its way to try to reinterpret art history, usually in the most bizarre manner. This is really Jules Prown’s fault, although I think he started out very well, with great intentions, with his wanting to define American art within material culture and its political ramifications, and whatnot.

Cole: How might the works of someone like Winslow Homer be related to what’s happening in American art scholarship today?

Gerdts: Oh, well, you see now what’s happened with Homer is that instead of expounding upon his tremendous achievements, the latest articles on Homer have to do with, Who was that girl I saw you with last night? They have to do with this model that appears in a number of his pictures. Was she his real girlfriend or not? Was that Helena de Kay that he was in love with? Or was it the school teacher he wrote about in one of his letters? Or, possibly, was he homosexual and did he dress up men as women? I mean, What the hell has that got to do with what he achieved?

You know, we pointed out that this sudden—not sudden, but fairly sudden—explosion of interest in American art was as much collector- and dealer-driven as it was academic-driven.

There is now a tremendous gap. I mean, the collectors and the dealers have absolutely no interest in what the art historians are bulls—ing about.

Cole: One more thing about Homer before we move on, if you don’t mind. It seems to me that Homer is a quintessential American artist. But what is it that makes him so American? Or, put another way, what is American about American art?

Gerdts: Obviously there are certain things that are very American, like pictures of the Rocky Mountains, pictures that do not look like the Swiss Alps.

Once upon a time, I was called into a gallery to look at a picture—a picture by Bierstadt of Mount Hood, a big vertical picture, rather close up. And I was asked what do I think of that picture. I said, “Well, it’s a very nice picture. And, nice Bierstadt.

“But I really wonder if it’s Mount Hood,” because there’s a little path going around the edge of it. And there’s this lady, in a peasant costume, with her laundry on her head—that kind of thing. And that didn’t seem awfully American Indian to me. The next time I saw that picture at the same gallery, the picture was still there. But they had obviously put a very heavy coat of varnish over it. So, you didn’t see it nearly as well.

Cole: What about Americans and nature?

Gerdts: Americans were, particularly in the early and middle years of the nineteenth century, very interested in nature, because they didn’t have any history. So, relatively speaking, nature was the big subject. The Hudson River School and even after.

Cole: Well, I know you’re very interested in regional art.

Gerdts: There has been a tremendous renewed interest in regional art. Part of it, again, but only part, has to do with the finances. Because if you can’t buy a Hassam now because they’re in the millions, possibly you could buy a Connecticut Impressionist painting for only a hundred thousand dollars.

But what I find fascinating—and I have no explanation for it, so don’t ask—is the lack of consistency in the interest in regional art.

I mean, Californians are incredibly fascinated by California. There must be two hundred galleries in California that deal with nothing but California art. Indiana is very interested in Indiana art. Illinois is not interested in Illinois art.

Cole: Go figure, right?

Gerdts: The other aspect I wanted to emphasize, though, is an area where I am more and more interested: the interrelationship of American and European art. For instance, the essay I’m most proud of having written in recent years was one that was in that Sargent in Venice catalog, which was not on Sargent, but was on the artistic milieu in Venice at the time of Sargent.

Actually, what I got most interested in, and I’m not kidding about any of this or exaggerating, are the Venetian paintings of the late nineteenth century, which are magnificent. There was a real renaissance, hardly Titian or Tieopolo, but a real renaissance.

And it’s totally unknown in this country.


Cole: When did you start to collect art?

Gerdts: The earliest picture in my collection I acquired in 1950. It was a still life, which is mostly what I collect. But then I didn’t collect another until 1956.

I was at the Newark Museum. There’s a little shop in Newark that I used to spend a lot of time in, a frame shop, occasionally it had shows. And I used to spend a lot of my lunch hours there.

I went in there once, and they had a little still life. I didn’t know who did it, although I think I do now. It was $35, and I bought it.

The next week I came in, and they had four pictures by a better known artist. In fact, at least one of them went to the Newark Museum, a big Cropsey landscape.

But they had a pair of still lifes by David Johnson, who was a pretty well-known landscape painter, and didn’t do still lifes. There were only about half a dozen still lifes known by him. But two of them were there. And I said, “How much are they?” And they said, “A hundred dollars.” And I said, “I don’t have a hundred dollars.” They said, “Well, we’ll sell you one for fifty.” And I said, “Well, I really can’t pay fifty.” I worked for a museum. I said, “But last week you sold me one for $35.” They said, “Okay. You can have one of them for $35, and we’ll charge $65 for the other one.”

Interestingly, my associate director for the museum bought the other one. It is now on the market for about $250,000.

Cole: So you’ve been collecting ever since?

Gerdts: It was when I bought that second picture, the David Johnson, that I knew I was hooked. The first time, maybe not.

My first wife, a lovely woman, used to complain occasionally that I was taking food out of the mouth of our son.

Cole: Was that true?

Gerdts: Yes. Well, you can’t win them all.

Cole: Can a person who is not wealthy still collect American art?

Gerdts: Of a certain type, and provided you don’t have to fill in gaps which are going to be just way over the top for you.

Cole: Do you collect systematically?

Gerdts: We collect American still-life paintings of the 1850s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, post-Peale, pre-Harnett, because I love them. I mean, I love the look of them. I love the way they are crafted. I like how they differ one from another. How I can tell the style of William Mason Brown from George Hall, and all that sort of thing.

But there is a financial element there. I never could’ve afforded the Peales to begin with. I never could’ve afforded the Harnetts at the other end. But I could afford what went in between.

Cole: What were people doing with those still lifes in those days? And where were they putting them?

Gerdts: In dining rooms.

Cole: Did many houses have them?

Gerdts: Oh yes. Now, the other side of this is that still-life painting was looked upon as the least original form of art, because it was seen as only imitative.

Cole: Yes. And just decoration too, right?

Gerdts: Decoration and imitation. In other words, the artist sets up three peaches and a lemon, and then he paints three peaches and a lemon.

I understand that. And I appreciate it. But I see it differently, because obviously I see that the way that Brown painted three peaches and a lemon is different from the way Hall painted three peaches and a lemon. So, it’s not the same thing. It’s not just a photograph of three peaches and a lemon.

Cole: And you like pears too, right?

Gerdts: Oh, I’m a pear freak. Yes. Pears in all forms, including to eat.

Cole: How were these still lifes received in their day?

Gerdts: It became a big thing in America with Harnett. And it became a big thing not because of his showing them in exhibitions so much. He did a little showing, but in more popular venues like state fairs or barrooms.

Cole: Was that because they were so realistic?

Gerdts: Yes.

Cole: That’s what people really loved about them, right?

Gerdts: Yes, yes.

Cole: They fooled the eye.

Gerdts: Yes. For the fool-the-eye.

Cole: Yes.

Gerdts: There’s an element of fool-the-eye in practically all nature representational painting. Our kind of still life has relatively little.

Cole: And who was painting these still lifes? Were they still-life specialists?

Gerdts: We have about 250 works of art, but that includes drawings and prints and things like that. Let’s say we have a 100 or 110 still lifes. The majority of them were painted by still-life specialists, but I have a couple of subcategories, one of which is still lifes by artists who didn’t paint them, like the David Johnson.

Cole: Yes.

Gerdts: Sanford Gifford, who was a very prolific landscape painter, only painted one fruit still life. And I’ve got it. And that’s sort of fun to have.

Cole: It’s unique.

Gerdts: Yes.

Cole: Nobody was collecting still lifes when you started, right?

Gerdts: No. And there were no still-life collectors in the nineteenth century.

Cole: So, what have you learned from buying that you don’t learn by looking at art in a book or by going to an exhibition?

Gerdts: Well, first of all, it has trained me not only to see the difference between a Brown and Hall, but between any two of the artists that are represented. Or to see that an artist in their early years might be different from their later years. And to see how they got from one to the other. I’ve learned to love these pictures with a passion. And they are minor pictures. I say minor pictures because there used to be a hierarchy, a thematic hierarchy that lasted for two or three hundred years, where history painting was at the top and still life was at the bottom. And I like the perversity of liking the bottom.

Cole: “An ill-favoured thing, sir, but mine own.”

Gerdts: Yes, exactly. It’s not that I don’t like history painting. I think Washington Crossing the Delaware is a great picture. But in one sense, it’s no greater than my three pears and an apple by Hall.

Cole: That wouldn’t fit into your apartment anyway. Or would it?

Gerdts: No, unless we had a bigger couch.

Cole: Do you have plans for your collection?

Gerdts: It is going to the National Gallery.

Cole: Really?

Gerdts: It was going to go to Amherst College. That’s where I got my degree, and then they gave me an honorary degree, and all that. They were going to enlarge the art building, but they never did it. And it’s not just pique that they didn’t do it.

We were up there after they had a big capital campaign. They did all sorts of things to all sorts of buildings, and practically nothing to the art museum except to install good climate control, which actually ate up a little bit of the space. And we were taken through the museum with the then curator, a friend of ours. The building wasn’t quite open, but it was beyond hard hats.

So we went in through the loading dock entrance. And we’re in this huge, huge room. And she says, “This is where the storage is.” I thought that was very impressive, until we got half way through the room and she says, “Well, that’s painting storage and the rest is decorative art storage.”

And then we said to the curator, “Well, if you get our paintings, what are you going to do with them?” I don’t mean hang them, exhibit them. “Where are you going to store them?” And she said, “Well, it’s the best we can do.”

Shortly thereafter, Nick Cikovsky, then curator of American art at the National Gallery, was visiting us. He looked at all the pictures very carefully. And said, “So, what are you going to do with them? ” I said, “Well, we were going to give them to Amherst, but not now." He said, “Well, what about the National Gallery? ” And I said, “Are you kidding? ” I mean, the Ganz Collection, the Horowitz Collection, the Gerdts Collection! I don’t think so. He said, “No, I’m serious. ” He said, “We would be very interested.”

He and Frank Kelly came up several times. And they don’t take whole collections. They made their selection from our collection. And, then, they added to it, as we’ve added some things to it.

So the best of our collection will go to the National Gallery collection. The rest will be sold to create an acquisition fund for the National Gallery.

And the National Gallery is the only museum I know of that puts in their annual financial statement, “We do not deaccession.”

Cole: Thanks. This has been fascinating.