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Rathbone, Perry T.

    Full Name: Rathbone, Perry T.

    Other Names:

    • Perry Rathbone

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1911

    Date Died: 2000

    Place Born: Germantown, Adams, PA, USA

    Place Died: Cambridge, Middlesex, MA, USA

    Home Country/ies: United States

    Career(s): directors (administrators)


    Director, St. Louis Museum of Art and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; early exponent of German Expressionism in the United States. Rathbone’s father was a photographer and his mother a nurse. He grew up in New Rochelle, N.Y. Rathbone attended Harvard College where he was a student of the famous “museum course” taught by Paul J. Sachs. There he befriended Otto Wittmann, Jr., future director of the Toledo Museum of Art. The two continued the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art, founded by Lincoln Kirstein (1907-1996), Eddie Warburg and John Walker III. After graduating in 1933–Wittmann and Rathbone turned the HSCA over to John P. Coolidge–he participated in graduate work at the Fogg Museum of Fine Arts at Harvard. He moved to the Detroit Institute of Arts, where the director, Wilhelm Rheinhold Otto Valentiner, exposed him to German Expressionism. Rathbone was assigned to the museum’s Alger house, a branch of the museum in Grosse Pointe, MI. He was placed in charge of the “Masterpieces of Art” exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The success of that job led to an appointed as director of the St. Louis Art Museum (then known as the City Art Museum of St. Louis) in 1940. He was then just 29. His knowledge of German Expressionism alerted him to the plight of Max Beckmann (1884-1950), who, still in Germany, was declared a “degenerate artist” by Hitler. Rathbone arranged for Beckmann and Beckmann’s wife to move to St. Louis. Beckmann returned the favor by making Rathbone’s future wife the subject of his first portrait in America. Rathbone served in World War II as a lieutenant commander in the Navy, serving one year of a three-year tour in the South Pacific. While on leave in Washgington, D. C. in 1945 he married Euretta de Cosson. Returning to his civilian job in St. Louis, Rathbone organized a Beckmann retrospective in 1948, introducing Beckmann to among others, the philanthropist/collector Morton D. May who became an avid Beckmann collector. May’s collection eventually was bequeathed to the St. Louis museum. In 1955 Rathbone accepted the position of director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, succeeding George Harold Edgell. During his tenure he expanded the museum, doubling its staff and renovating 57 of the Museum’s 189 galleries. He mounted exhibitions of Rembrandt, Matisse, Modigliani, Cezanne, van Gogh and Courbet. Under his direction, Museum departments of pre-Columbian and Primitive art as well as that of contemporary art were launched. Rathbone oversaw the Boston museum’s first acquisitions of works major 20th-century artists, including Pablo Picasso, Alexander Calder, Constantine Brancusi, Paul Klee, and Alberto Giacometti. He preferred to be his own curator of paintings, writing the catalog essays for many MFA exhibitions. Rathbone donated a 1948 portrait of cigarette-smoking himself by Beckmann, painted during the St. Louis years, to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Late in 1969, Rathbone acquired what was then purported to be a Raphael portrait of Eleonora Gonza, 1505, from a Genoa art dealer, Ildebrando Bossi for slightly under $1 million. The work was supposed to be the crown for the museum’s centennial celebration. However, the Italian government considered the work illegally removed from the country and U. S. Customs seized the painting. The scandal forced the Museum to return the painting and Rathbone resigned, claiming other reasons, in 1972. Cornelius C. Vermeule III, assumed his position in an acting capacity. Rathbone joined Christie’s auction house, retiring in 1986 but continuing to consult until 1995. He died in a Boston nursing home. Rathbone’s children all became art historians. Peter Rathbone is the director of American paintings at Sotheby’s, Eliza Rathbone is chief curator at the Phillips Collection, Washgington, D. C., and Belinda Rathbone is a photo historian.

    Selected Bibliography

    Lee Gatch. New York: American Federation of Arts. 1960; Mississippi Panorama: the Life and Landscape of the Father of Waters and its Great tributary, the Missouri. St. Louis: City Art Museum of St. Louis, 1950; Westward the Way: the Character and Development of the Louisiana Territory as seen by Artists and Writers of the Nineteenth Century. St. Louis: City Art Museum of St. Louis/Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 1954; The Forsyth Wickes Collection, Boston, Museum of Fine Arts. Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society, 1968; Max Beckmann 1948: City Art Museum of St. Louis Retrospective Exhibition Organized by City Art Museum of St. Louis. St. Louis: The City Art Museum, 1948; In Memoriam: Max Beckmann, 12.2 1884 – 27.12. 1950. Frankfurt am Main: K.G. Lohse, 1953.


    “Boston’s Import of a Raphael Said to Worry Italy.” New York Times, January 24, 1970, p. 18; “Art Expert Charge Holds Genoa Dealer.” New York Times, February 28, 1970, p. 19; [transcript] Smith, Richard Cándida, interviewer. Otto Wittmann: The Museum in the Creation of Community. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Trust, 1995; [obituaries:] Dobrzynski, Judith H. “Perry Rathbone, Museum Director, Dies at 88.” The New York Times, January 27, 2000, p. B8; “Perry Rathbone, at 88, former MFA director.” The Boston Herald, January 24, 2000 p. 23; Robertson, Tommy. “Perry Rathbone Dies, Former Art Museum Director.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 23, 2000, p. D2,


    "Rathbone, Perry T.." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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