Two Collectors' Passion for Art Is on Display at St. Louis Art Museum

By Miller, Sarah Bryan | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), June 18, 2017 | Go to article overview

Two Collectors' Passion for Art Is on Display at St. Louis Art Museum


Miller, Sarah Bryan, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


A commitment to art brought Phoebe Dent Weil and Mark Steinberg Weil together. Their mutual love of the beautiful and historic led them to build the collection of prints, drawings and sculptures that is now on display at the St. Louis Art Museum.

The exhibition, "Learning to See: Renaissance and Baroque Masterworks from the Phoebe Dent Weil and Mark S. Weil Collection," was curated by Elizabeth Wyckoff, curator of prints, drawings and photographs; and Judith Mann, curator of European art to 1800. It can be viewed through July 30 in Galleries 234 and 235.

Mark Weil represents the third generation of his family to make important gifts of art to SLAM, as well as to other major St. Louis institutions; he is an art historian and former professor of art history and director of the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University.

Phoebe Dent Weil, the daughter of a sculptor mother and painter-architect father, is an art conservator who pioneered the field of sculpture conservation in St. Louis and elsewhere, starting in the 1970s. She's lectured, taught and worked all over the world. One of her last jobs was to restore the bronze sculpture on top of the U.S. Capitol, "inside and out. Looking out at Washington, D.C., from that point of view was pretty dramatic."

She has contributed significantly to the growing field of technical art history, in which the physical substance of artworks is studied alongside their art history aspects, and taught it at Smith College. She developed tools for teaching art education to children. She also has a master's degree in divinity from Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., and has served as a spiritual director.

To hear her talking about the works in the exhibition is to get a sense both of her depth of knowledge about art and her love for the objects on display, from a sweet anonymous sculpture of a Madonna to instantly recognizable works by the likes of Albrecht Drer.

The Weils met as graduate students in New York. "We hit it off," she says. When Mark went to Rome to work on his master's degree and Phoebe later started a Fulbright scholarship in Brussels, they corresponded by airmail for a year. When they were both back in the United States, they married in her hometown of Memphis, Tenn.

They moved to St. Louis when he got a job at the University of Missouri, soon relocating to his alma mater, Washington University. Now divorced after a long marriage, but in agreement over their collection, they have two adult sons and a grandson.

Phoebe started collecting as a graduate student at New York University in the early 1960s; with a class assignment to buy a work of art for $25 or less, she purchased a small drawing by a 19th-century French artist, Charles Bargue.

"Mark grew up in a collecting family," she says. "My first experience of walking into his parents' house, and his grandmother's apartment, was nothing less than breathtaking. You'd go in and see Picassos on the wall. We were both soaked in art historical study, old masters."

The Weils moved to Rome for two years, where Phoebe joined visiting curators from various museums to help evaluate works of art being considered for purchase. "That was my first experience of going behind the front room of these galleries and seeing what they really had." She found "a couple of things that just knocked me over, and the price was within reason."

One of them was a portrait by the Italian Baroque painter Salvator Rosa (1615-1673). "That was our first important purchase. I still have it on my wall." Another was a bronze by Giambologna (1529-1608). Their friends were art historians; they started getting to know dealers. "It was thrilling to see things that it was possible to own."

It was also, she observes, "a great art history challenge. Any time you want to put out a big wad of money on (a piece), you wanted to know as much as possible: what the materials are, is it authentic, the whole historical part of it. …

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