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Swarzenski, Georg

    Full Name: Swarzenski, Georg

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1876

    Date Died: 1957

    Place Born: Dresden, Saxony, Germany

    Place Died: Brookline, Norfolk, MA, USA

    Home Country/ies: Germany

    Subject Area(s): Medieval (European) and Modern (style or period)

    Career(s): curators


    Medievalist and modernist; Director of Frankfurt art museums and later a Museum of Fine Art, Boston acquisitions curator, 1939-1957. Swarzenski’s father was Adolf Hanns Swarzenski, a prosperous Dresden merchant originally of Jewish origin, and his mother, Auguste Beck (Swarzenski). In 1896 graduated with a degree in law from Heidelberg. He married Ella Perec-Wilcynska, [name sometimes appearing as Pertz-Wilcynska] in 1899, turning his attention to art history. Swarzenski studied art under the great medievalist Adolph Goldschmidt in Berlin and in Heidelberg under Henry Thode, gaining his second degree in 1901. His dissertation was on the Regensburg school of manuscript illumination of the tenth and eleventh centuries. He initially worked as an assistant at the research assistant at the Berlin Museums where he likely habilitated in 1903, when he was designation a privatdozent. After a year as an assistant at the Kunsthistorischen Institut in Florence, he returned to Berlin as an assistant for the Kunstgewerbemuseum (“useful arts” museum). In 1906 he was appointed director of the Städelsches Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt, a privately endowed and operated art museum, which Thode had at one time directed. Seeing the need to acquire more art than the Städelsches could afford, Swarzenski convinced the city of Frankfurt to found its own, publicly funded art museum, the Städtische Galerie, (municipal gallery) to buy works, under Swarzenski’s direction, to complement the Städelsches holdings. The Städtische collection grew to include works by the Impressionists (Monet) and Post-Impressionists (Cézanne and van Gogh) and later by Picasso, Munch, Ensor and Die Brücke artists and others of German Expressionism, some of whom taught at the Kunstinstitut. He hired the fledgling art historian Fritz Wichert to assist him. In 1909 Swarzenski opened a combined museum, though still distinct in terms of collections, which he jointly directed with the Liebieghaus sculpture museum. He married a second time in 1916, to Marie Mössinger. The following year, he contributed essays on modern art for the important survey, Handbuch der Kunstwissenschaft. Together with his assistant, the art historian Alfred Wolters, he founded the Städel Jahrbuch beginning in 1921 (which they co-edited through 1936). About this time, he began a liaison with Calola Netter, whom he installed in the museum as his intern. A double portrait of his wife and mistress was painted by Max Beckmann in 1923. Swarzenski was gifted museum innovator. He organized period rooms for decorative arts in his museums. Between 1925-1931 he held musical concerts in the rooms, one of the first directors to do so. His knowledge of the art market brought many masterworks to his museums. He was also of sufficient means that he could afford to donate pictures to the museum personally; the famous van Gogh portrait of Dr. Gachet was one of these. Swarzenski wrote columns in the local newspaper, the Frankfurter Zeitung, communicating his interests and the museums’ needs to the German and greater European public. In 1928 Swarzenski was appointed Director-General of all Frankfurt museums. He used his new position to purchase a significant part of the large Sigmaringen collection. The museum’s Kunstgewerbemuseum, also rose to prominence under Swarzenski’s direction. As a director somewhat ahead of his time, he mounted an early “blockbuster” show, a display of goldsmithing work, known as the Welfenschatz, which attracted huge crowds from the region. The rise of the Nazis to power in 1933 put Swarzenski into direct conflict with their ideas of art. Forced to remove many works of modernist art from the museums walls because of their “degenerate” designation by the Nazis–and distrusted for his Jewish background–Swarzenski ultimately resigned in 1938 and fled to United States. Many of the modernist works he acquired, including his personal donation of the Dr. Gachet, were deaccessioned and sold. In the United States, he lectured at Institute for Advance Studies, Princeton, N. J., for the 1938-1939 year before Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Director George Harold Edgell offered him a position to build the medieval area of the collection. His 1940 Boston exhibition, “Arts of the Middle Ages: 1000-1400,” marked Boston as a center of interest in the middle ages. He retired in 1956 and was succeeded by his son, Hanns Swarzenski who also distinguished himself at Boston as an art historian.

    Selected Bibliography

    [complete bibliography:] Goetz, Oswald, ed. Essays in Honor of Georg Swarzenski. Chicago: Henry Regnery/Berlin: Verlag Gebr. Mann, 1951, pp. 261-267; [dissertation:] Die Regensburger Buchmalerei des X. und XI. Jahrhunderts: Studien zur Geschichte der deutschen Malerei des frühen Mittelalters. Heidelberg, 1901, published as volume one in the series, Denkmäler der süddeutschen Malerei des frühen Mittelalters, Leipzig: Karl W. Hiersemann; and Burger, Fritz, and Grisebach, August. Die Kunst des 19. und 20. Jahrhunderts. Handbuch der Kunstwissenschaft. 2 vols. Berlin-Neubabelsberg: Akademische Verlagsgesellschaft Athenaion,1917ff.; Nicolo Pisano. Frankfurt am Main: Iris-verlag, 1926; Die Salzburger Malerei von den ersten Anfängen bis zur Blütezeit des romanischen Stils: Studen zur Geschichte der deutschen Malerei und Handschriftenkunde des Millelalters. 2 vols. Leipzig: K. W. Hiersemann,1908-13; and Falke, Otto von, and Schmidt, Robert. Der Welfenschatz. Der Reliquienschatz des Braunschweiger Domes aus dem Besitze des herzoglichen Hauses Braunschweig-Lüneburg. Frankfurt am Main: Frankfurter Verlagsanstalt, 1930.


    Kleinbauer, W. Eugene. Modern Perspectives in Western Art History: An Anthology of 20th-Century Writings on the Visual Arts. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971, p. 46 mentioned; Metzler Kunsthistoriker Lexikon: zweihundert Porträts deutschsprachiger Autoren aus vier Jahrhunderten. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1999, pp. 403-5; Wendland, Ulrike. Biographisches Handbuch deutschsprachiger Kunsthistoriker im Exil: Leben und Werk der unter dem Nationalsozialismus verfolgten und vertriebenen Wissenschaftler. Munich: Saur, 1999, vol. 2, pp. 677-683; “Georg Swarzenski: Growth of the Medieval and Renaissance Collections During his Association with the Museum.” Bulletin [of the] Museum of Fine Arts Boston 55 no. 301-302 (Autumn-Winter 1957): 1-119; McClintock, Kathryn. “‘Arts of the Middle Ages’ and the Swarzenskis.” in Smith, Elizabeth Bradford, and McClintock, Kathryn, and Rottne, R. Aaron, eds. Medieval Art in America: Patterns of Collecting, 1800-1940. University Park, PA: Palmer Museum of Art, the Pennsylvania State University, 1996; [obituaries:] Schilling, Edmund. “Georg Swarzenski.” Burlington Magazine 100, no. 664 (July 1958): 251-252; “Georg Swarzenski, Museum Director.” New York Times June 16, 1957, p. 84; Rossiter, Henry P. Art Quarterly 20 no. 3 (Autumn 1957): 328.


    "Swarzenski, Georg." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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