WILLLAM SAWITZKY(1879-1947)

The death of William Sawitzky on February 2, 1947, was a great blow to scholarship in early American art. When he entered the field shortly before the First World War, it was still a playground for dilettantism, too many of the workers being concerned with pretty theories or ancestor worship. Wolves of error stalked the woods, falling unhindered on the little settlements of amateur scholars, and slaughtering their sheep-like publications. With incisive insight, Sawitzky realized that the most valuable contribution he could make would be to get back to first sources, to documents, to the attribution of individual pictures. Too much of what he called "aesthetic twaddle" was being written, too many airy theories were being built on misattributions or downright fakes. He would look at the pictures with a cold, scientific eye, laying firm the foundations on which his successors could build.

There was heroism in this resolve. Academic institutions ignored American art; the organized structure that supports basic scholarship was non-existent; he was forced to push ahead on his own, with little possibility of financial reward, through a most tangled wilderness of error. He may even have had to fight personal temptations too, for there was much of the artist about him; he could have written appreciation and theory, had the time been ripe. His monographs, indeed, are composed with a facility of style rarely found in such publications. His dedication overcame all obstacles; he used his esthetic insight to solve the seemingly tiny problems which are the basis of all knowledge; with little encouragement, he struggled on for years. His great abilities, his fine seriousness, his profound integrity won out in the end. He became an inspiration to the younger scholars in the field; men who disagreed on almost everything else could usually find common ground in their admiration of Mr. Sawitzky. And in 1940 he was appointed Advisory Curator of American Art at the New-York Historical Society under a special grant from the

____________________
An earlier version of this essay appeared in College Art Journal ( Summer 1947). 301- 302.

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