Eugene Thaw in his Own Words: The late collector and philanthropist interviewed in 1996
This interview with the late Eugene V. Thaw, who passed away on January 3, was first published in London by RA Magazine in 1996 when a selection of his drawings was shown at the Royal Academy of Arts. It is posted here in tribute to the collector and philanthropist in the final days of The Morgan Library’s exhibition, Drawn to Greatness: Master Drawings from the Thaw Collection (through January 7.)
When Eugene Thaw first tried to give a drawing to the Pierpont Morgan Library he was told, ‘We don’t take gifts from dealers’. Although understandably crestfallen, his regard for the highmindedness of this great New York institution only intensified. Founded by the legendary collector and ‘robber baron’ J.P.Morgan, the library is a stupendous treasure-trove of rare books, manuscripts and works on paper from across the centuries. Thaw persevered in his attempt at generosity, eventually managing to donate an entire collection of over 250 drawings, as well as the cash, some years ago, for the purchase of an adjacent building. He is now a trustee, one of very few dealers on the board of a major collecting institution. ‘I have steered things their way and saved them on occasion from the foibles of the art market’. There is no conflict of interest, because when he collects it is with the Morgan in mind.
Eugene Thaw, who will be seventy next year, was until his retirement one of the leading dealers in old master pictures. His clients included many of the major North American collections, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art (to which he has also bequeathed works), the Frick, the Art Institute of Chicago, and such mega-collectors as Norton Simon and Andrew Mellon. But as wealth and opportunity have allowed, he also amassed his own stunning collection of drawings.
He has no trouble admitting to the fact that he prefers drawings that are complete aesthetic experiences in themselves, very full and involved compositions. He even jests that he is a ‘paintings collector manqué’. ‘There are two kinds of drawing: the sketch for something, and the drawing for its own sake. Lots of connoisseurs are much more concerned with the art of idenfification, with ‘who dunnit’, doing detective work and making the right connections. That doesn’t interest me so much as the aesthetic impact of the sheet.’ With characteristic modesty, though, he adds that, ‘Being human, I react more strongly if I know who the artist is. I can’t claim to be so brilliant an eye that I respond just as strongly as if I knew the work were but by Durer.’
Thaw muses on how attitudes towards dealers have changed so demonstrably during his time in the trade. ‘You were one step above a push-cart peddler. Now every young debutante that comes out of college wants to work in a gallery. In my youth the professions for a polite and venturesome young man were Wall Street and advertising – both rather demoted these days. Art dealing has come a long way. Most art dealers who are any good are real scholars and know their field thoroughly.’ Thaw himself is the epitome of the dealer-scholar. He is a frequent speaker at conferences and numerous publications including the Jackson Pollock catalogue raisonne, of which he is co-author. ‘With some dealers, their eye is equivalent to the best academic scholars, or better, because they actually learn from the objects.’
How does he feel about the infamous Mr Morgan with whose legacy his own is now entwined? ‘Of course I have mixed feelings about him as a human being, and don’t know that he would have accepted me as a friend. He was a tyrant, but he was a great collector. But you know, the robber barons like Morgan actually gave their fortunes back to society in the collections they bequeathed. Today’s billionaires are only worried about their ratings with Forbes. With all our moral superiority, Morgan belonged to a better episode in the history of wealth.’ Mr Thaw and his wife Clare have done their bit for philanthropy this end of the century, however. Besides their gift to the Morgan, they have donated a major collection of Native American art as a museum at Cooperstown, in upstate New York, and in Santa Fe, where they now live, they sponsor the restoration of historic adobe churches.
Since parting with his drawings bequest, keeping just a few around him ‘to decorate the apartment’, Eugene Thaw has started collecting in new areas, such as nineteenth-century plein-air oil sketches. With the mixture of bemusement and pride of a true collector, he notes how, thanks to a current exhibition of Corot’s followers at the Brooklyn Museum, many of these forgotten figures are fashionable again.
‘I’m especially proud of this Mantegna because of the difficulty for any collector to get a capital sheet of this early period’, says Eugene Thaw. There is little representation of Italian renaissance or even baroque drawing in his collection because he would have been hard-put to match the superlative holdings of the Morgan in this area. But when this presented itself, he couldn’t resist, and ‘luckily happened to have the funds at the time’. Like many Mantegna drawings, this had previously been attributed to Bellini, but relatively recently the matching of a related work to a Mantegna print led to reattribution of a whole group of drawings. ‘But anyway, I wouldn’t have minded if it was by Bellini’, he remarks with good humour. ‘I don’t collect for the value of drawings. I never resell – that was my whole career as a dealer, which gave me the money to collect these things. I’ve had the thrill of my eye being vindicated by selling again’.
‘This is one of my earliest Rembrandts. It has such a sense of colour, he is able to use the medium to bring out such liveliness and light. It comes from a set of four sketches he made watching a parade; it’s a band of black musicians. It just says everything about his graphic powers, that he is able to put down so much in such a small sheet.’ ‘Rembrandt is an artist who is being rethought and torn apart by attribution these days. Seymour Slive has said that if there is one more conference, Rembrandt will cease to exist as an artist. Some of my pieces have not survived the various rounds of reattribution’, he concedes, although the four selected for the Academy exhibition are still reckoned to be by the master himself. ‘Actually, if they are great drawings by the best pupil, it doesn’t bother me. Anyway, if they are good enough to be in the Morgan Library, the next generation may put them back [in the oeuvre]!’
‘This is the peasant who loses everything. She is a universal, even an archetypal figure of suffering’. Thaw sees the grace and fortitude of the peasant who can say ‘Leave it all to Providence’ reflected in the tenderness yet monumentality with which Goya has drawn her, ‘the wonderful silhoutte of the figure against the page, the fullness of emotional content. It could be lifesize, and yet it is only ten inches high’. He doesn’t accept that there is any irony in the title. ‘Goya sympathized with these people. He was a figure of the enlightenment, a humane man like Goethe or Beethoven, but he also has a dark side. This really comes out in some of my other Goyas, in his sharp satire of the Majas, or in the cutting depiction of a monk being fleeced by card-sharks, but here the sentiment is different. He really sympathised with members of the lower orders. This woman is the victim of wars and revolutions.’
Eugene Thaw bought back this late watercolour, one of the set of around a dozen of this unusual size, from his client, Norton Simon. Simon was a collector who believed in hanging everything he owned, Thaw explains, but was worried that such a fresh and delicate watercolour on such a large, clean white sheet would suffered exposed to the California sun. ‘I managed to trade it out of him’. For many years this still-life took pride of place over the Thaw mantlepiece in their Park Avenue apartment. ‘This is one of the miracles of an artist’s hand. Cézanne who started as such an inept performer with a brush and pencil became the subtlest and most magical artist, almost oriental in brilliance of touch. It is so refined, its what the mind’s eye would see. Trying to refine a motif, he draws out of it a kind of abstraction; its a picture created by a mind rather than just a recording eye. This watercolour is just a miracle.’