William H. Gerdts, Giant in the Field of American Art, Remembered

  • April 20, 2020 16:57

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William H. Gerdts
American Impressionism by William H. 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." - William H. Gerdts in a 2007 interview with National Endowment of Humanities Chairman Bruce Cole.

American art was undoubtedly elevated by the groundbreaking scholarship and valuable teaching of Bill Gerdts.

Obituary below published in The New York Times (classifieds) on Apr. 19, 2020:

William H. Gerdts, 91, died April 14, 2020 of complications of COVID-19. Bill was a distinguished scholar and teacher of the history of American painting and sculpture of the 18th, 19th, and earlier 20th century. He was professor in the Ph.D. Program in Art History, City University of New York Graduate Center from 1971 to assuming Professor Emeritus status in 1999, when his career was far from over.

Bill graduated from Amherst College in February 1949. He filled the seven month gap before he could take up his admission to Harvard Law School employed in preparing Amherst's significant collection of American art for the move to the new Mead museum building, and finding his calling. Four days of law classes were enough for him to decide on the immediate change in registration to Harvard's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences art history department. His first serious professional position following resident graduate study was curator of paintings and sculpture, The Newark (NJ) Museum, 1954-1966, a time when historical American art was just beginning to attain scholarly and commercial respect. He reveled in the chance to enlarge and shape the Museum's already important American collection.

Bill received his doctorate degree from Harvard in 1966, which opened the opportunity to teach at university level. His first academic appointment was as associate professor of art history at the University of Maryland, College Park, where he remained for three years. But Bill never liked to be far from New York. He returned in 1969 to enjoy a stint as Vice President for Research at the Coe Kerr Gallery, before joining the faculty of the newly created CUNY graduate program in art history. The program was exceptional in its focus on the study of American art, still an exotic academic choice.

Art Across America (3 volumes) by William H. Gerdts

Besides teaching, Bill was a frequent guest lecturer or exhibition curator for museum and universities around the country, and occasionally, abroad. His record of publication was prodigious: at least one title every year from 1954 through 2019. There are journal articles, reviews, essays in exhibition catalogues, and some 25 major books, a number which became the definitive study of its subject. He was an acknowledged authority on American Neo-Classical sculpture; American still life painting; the early 19th century painters Washington Allston and Henry Inman; and the American Impressionist movement. A summary definition of Bill's career might be the title of his three volume study "Art Across America. Two Centuries of Regional Painting: 1710-1920," (Abbeville Press, 1990).

An almost inevitable accessory to his dedication to study and teaching was development of a comprehensive professional library. It filled the New York apartment shared with Abigail, his wife and professional colleague of 43 years. One of the satisfactions of his life was opening it to students or researchers of a wide range of interest directly or tangentially concerned with the history of American art. The library and a selection of their collection of American art was given to the National Gallery of Art in 2018.

Bill received many honors, including the degrees Doctor of Humane Letters from Amherst College in 1992, and Doctor of Fine Arts from Syracuse University in 1996. However, his greatest pride was in his doctoral students who have gone on to influential positions as teachers, curators and advisers at colleges, universities, museums and galleries around the country.

Harriet Goodhue Hosmer (American, 1830 - 1908) Puck, c. 1856, marble. Gift of William and Abigail Gerdts. National Gallery of Art.

Besides his wife, Abigail, Bill is survived by his first wife and constant friend, Elaine Evans Dee; their son Jeffrey Dee and his wife, Susan; granddaughter Joanna Dee Das and husband Koushik; grandson, James and wife, Pyper; and great-grand- children Keerthan and Jaya.

Tags: american art

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