THE Collector

By Cole, Bruce | Humanities, September/October 2007 | Go to article overview

THE Collector


Cole, Bruce, Humanities


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.

PART ONE:

THE COLLECTOR as a YOUNG MAN

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

WILLIAM 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. …

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