Obituary: Michael St Clair

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AN IMPROBABLY, peculiarly small number of art dealers have also worked as practising artists, yet Michael St Clair was remarkable in more ways than just this. He had seriously pursued painting for some 25 years before becoming a dealer but he was also a highly decorated war hero and single-handed saviour of several 20th-century American artistic careers.

He was perhaps best known for reviving and restoring the reputation of Marsden Hartley, turning this painter from an obscure regional figure into a household name, but St Clair's gentlemanly discretion ensured that many other of his achievements went unheralded. Indeed, his companion of more than 50 years, Paul M. Jones, only discovered that St Clair had won the Silver Star and three Bronze Stars for bravery during battle in Italy in 1943 whilst reading his friend's obituary.

St Clair was a man of few words, perfect formal tailoring and exquisite manners, whose knowledge of the history of this century's American art was outstanding. It was a history he helped to shape. Born in 1913, he grew up in the oilfields of Pennsylvania and Oklahoma and started painting at 18, enrolling in 1934 for classes with Thomas Hart Benton at the Kansas City Art Institute. Another of Benton's pupils was Jackson Pollock, whom St Clair knew, though St Clair was precisely as patrician as Pollock was Bohemian.

St Clair then moved to Manhattan and studied with George Grosz at the Art Students' League, followed by the Colorado Springs Art Centre. He was involved in the WPA (Works Project Administration) in Oklahoma City where he had his only solo show in 1942. Enlisting with the 328th Fighter Squadron, he saw active service in Europe and northern Africa but returned to New York to continue his career as a painter.

This lasted until 1959 when he came to the Babcock Gallery, which since 1852 has dealt exclusively in American art, an unbroken record for a commercial establishment. Starting as a director, St Clair bought the gallery and the same year took over the Marsden Hartley estate, a truckload of paintings brought down from rural Maine. He immediately put on a show, the first of 11 exhibitions in the next 20 years that transformed the appreciation of Hartley in every sense, financially as well as critically.

St Clair placed Hartley works with 70 museums, not to mention the retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 1978, the first major museum show for Hartley in 30 years. As John Driscoll, who bought the Babcock Gallery in 1988, puts it, "Nobody in this century did more to keep Hartley's name in front of the public, and that alone is a major accomplishment. Hartley was fortunate to have someone like Michael come along."

As well as Hartley, St Clair also built a following for such relatively neglected painters as Childe Hassam, Ambrose Webster, George Innes and Alfred Maurer, who was known as "the first modern American artist" and whose bizarre warfare with his father, a traditionalist artist, ended with his father's death at the age of 100 and Maurer's subsequent suicide when he realised he could not live without so bitter an enemy. St Clair was also an acknowledged expert on the ever-mysterious Albert Pinkham Ryder, having gathered incomparable records about his scarce works.

But, during nearly 30 years of running the Babcock Gallery, St Clair also showed contemporary artists, especially if their names began with "B", such as Bessie Boris, Ben Ben and Byron Burford, who represented America at the Venice Biennale in 1968. He also exhibited the work of the eccentric railroad heir Jerome Hill and the constructivist modernist Stephen Edlich. When he sold the gallery, St Clair remained very much part of its operations and aesthetic, as its active eminence grise. Last year he established the Babcock Galleries Endowed Fund for Art History at Pennsylvania Stale University.

As a salesman St Clair managed to be elegantly taciturn and as rigorous as any academic, refusing to lower or debate his stated price, like an old-fashioned gentleman dealer. Equally quaint, most of what he sold also belonged to him personally, works he would take home to live with, although he did not collect. Greta Garbo used to come into the gallery to enjoy his erudite explanations, and he was mortified when one day she suddenly fell to her knees to examine paintings he had propped against the wall, before he had had time to hang them or stop her.

As St Clair was expert at tracking down the scattered works of neglected artists, perhaps the only remaining question is where his own oeuvre, a quarter of a century's-worth of paintings, might be found today. In his gracious apartment on East 74th Street, only one very small landscape signed Michael St Clair was to be seen.

Michael St Clair, art dealer and artist: born Bradford, Pennsylvania 28 May 1912; died New York 22 February 1999.