Eugene V. Thaw, Founding Director

by | Jul 9, 2020 | Directors, in memoriam

Eugene V. Thaw, a major American collector of European old master art and one of the world’s most respected dealers in the field, passed away in January 2018. Mr. Thaw and his wife Clare E. Thaw shared the love of art. Mr. Thaw also earned distinction as the co-author of a monumental catalog raisonné of Jackson Pollock’s work.

Thaw’s personal collection featured more than 400 drawings, including rare works by Goya, Van Gogh, and Andrea Mantegna and price-setting items by Rembrandt and Samuel Palmer. But he insisted that “great art collecting need not be based on a great fortune; education, experience and eye are more important.”

He was born on Oct. 27, 1927, in Washington Heights in Manhattan. His father was a heating contractor, his mother a schoolteacher. They named him for the socialist leader Eugene Victor Debs, who had died the previous year. As a young teenager, Mr. Thaw took drawing classes at the Art Students League on West 57th Street in Manhattan. But he did not pursue the hands-on practice of art.

“I can’t create the objects I crave to look at,” he later said, “so I collect them.”

After graduating from DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx at 15, he entered St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md., and began making day trips to art museums in nearby Washington.

Returning to New York in 1947, he took graduate classes in art history at Columbia University with Millard Meiss and Meyer Schapiro. He also followed the city’s contemporary art scene, getting an early immersion in Pollock’s work at the Betty Parsons Gallery.

Having neither the money nor the social connections generally required to be a museum curator in those days, Mr. Thaw decided on selling art as a career option.

In 1950, with a loan from his father, he opened a gallery above the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel on West 44th Street. He gathered stock in part by rummaging through antique stores and hanging out at small auction houses.

His wares were eclectic. To keep the doors open, he sold Nabis prints and Toulouse-Lautrec posters. But he also researched Rembrandt drawings, handled some Native American material, and mounted the first solo show of a newcomer named Joan Mitchell.

In 1954, he moved to Madison Avenue, where he shared a floor with a carpet dealer and a beauty salon. That same year he married Clare Eddy, his gallery assistant, who suggested that when he found things he really liked, he keep them rather than sell them.

With that, his parallel career as a collector began in earnest. It would take him, often in partnership with his wife, in many directions. Although drawings were a lifelong passion, he also built what he termed “subcollections” of 18th-century French faience (a type of tin-glazed earthenware), bronzes from the ancient Eurasian steppes, medieval European ornaments, and architectural models, all of which found homes in museums. In 2002, the Eurasian bronzes were part of an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

During these early decades, he was mentored by some of the great dealers and collectors of an older generation, including Pierre Matisse and Janos Scholz, and worked closely with contemporaries like Leo Castelli and Sidney Janis. In 1962, Mr. Thaw became a founding member of the Art Dealers Association of America, which he once described as “a fractious, individualistic, secretive, eccentric but talented group of venture capitalists.”

From teachers and colleagues, he learned useful sales tricks, one of which involved collaboration with the renowned conservator Mario Modestini. Mr. Thaw would bring clients to Mr. Modestini’s studio and sell paintings “from Mario’s easel, having him clean passages in front of their eyes to reveal the truth as old varnish and dirt disappeared.”

Before long, these clients included major museums — the Art Institute of Chicago, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the National Gallery in Washington — and private buyers like Paul Mellon and Norton Simon, whose Pasadena museum Mr. Thaw did much to shape.

His closest institutional tie was to what is now the Morgan Library and Museum, which in the 1950s was one of the few New York museums to have a curator of drawings. In 1975, after the museum had expanded its acquisition parameters to include 19th-century work, the Thaws decided that the Morgan would be the recipient, in incremental allotments, of their ever-growing holdings. The Morgan exhibition “Drawn to Greatness: Master Drawings From the Thaw Collection,” which opened in September and closes on Sunday, marked the completion of the gift, encompassing more than 400 sheets.

Among them were works by modern and contemporary artists in whom Mr. Thaw took particular interest. In the 1950s, on summer vacations in East Hampton, N.Y., Clare Thaw had struck up a friendship with the painter Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock’s widow. With Ms. Krasner’s cooperation, Mr. Thaw began preparing the multivolume Pollock catalog raisonné, an annotated listing of all the artist’s known works, in the 1970s, hiring the art historian Francis V. O’Connor as co-author.

At Ms. Krasner’s death in 1984, Mr. Thaw served as executor of her estate and helped establish the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, which gives grants to artists in need.

The Thaws had established their own foundation, the Eugene V. and Clare E. Thaw Charitable Trust, in 1981, using the proceeds from the sale of a single van Gogh painting. The trust supports the arts, the environment, and, of particular importance to Ms. Thaw, animal rights.

By then Mr. Thaw was preparing to retire as a dealer, discouraged by the direction the field had taken. “The astronomical growth in wealth over the last generation has fueled merely an interest in treating art as a financial asset,” he wrote.

In 1987, the Thaws moved from their farm in Cherry Valley, in Otsego County, to Santa Fe, N.M. There they began collecting Native American art, eventually acquiring more than 1,000 objects. They later gave the entire collection to the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., not far from Cherry Valley. A wing designed by Hugh Hardy was built in 1995 to house it. The Thaws returned to Cherry Valley five years ago, and Ms. Thaw died there in June at 93. They also lived for many years in an art-filled ground-floor duplex apartment on Park Avenue in Manhattan. An article in The New York Times in 2007 said the home “could be mistaken for a museum,” where, among paintings and other art objects, framed drawings by Rembrandt, Goya, Degas, Delacroix, Picasso, and Matisse lined the walls.

In the months after his wife’s death, Mr. Thaw focused on seeing the Morgan drawing show through to completion. It is, effectively, a record of his history as a dealer and collector, and of theirs as a couple.

In parting with art that he had devoted his life to collecting, Mr. Thaw was matter-of-fact.

“After I’ve owned them and learned about them, I don’t need them anymore,” he told The Times in 1994. “They’re with me, and I can give them away.”

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