Obituary: Jacob Bean

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The Independent Online
Jacob Bean, art-historian and curator, born Stillwater Minnesota 22 November 1923, died New York City 8 September 1992.

WHEN he took up the newly created post of Curator of Drawings at the Metropolitan Museum in 1960 the New Yorker described Jacob Bean as a 'lanky Minnesotan'. Though the first adjective can hardly be called incorrect, for he was a conspicuously tall man, and though he was born, in 1923, at Stillwater, Minnesota, the combination is entirely misleading to those who knew him.

At Harvard (exceptionally for an undergraduate) he was permitted to take Paul Sachs's famous postgraduate 'Museum Course', but he did not graduate. A less conventional but no less valuable part of his early education was a period on the staff of the New Yorker as one of the sub-editors whose sole task was the verification of the exact truth of every statement due to appear in print. In a period when every aspiring entrant to the museum profession is expected to have at least a Ph D, Bean was distinguished by his complete lack of formal academic qualifications. The success of his career illustrates the truism that in his particular field of art history the most useful education is empirical.

In the mid-1950s he and his lifelong companion Donald Gurney, a highly cultivated New Englander of great charm, subtle wit and fine taste, settled in Paris in an elegant small apartment in the Place Furstenburg. Bean found his way to the Cabinet des Dessins of the Louvre, where he was fortunate in gaining the approval and friendship of the Conservateur-en-chef, Jacqueline Bouchot-Saupique, and of her eventual successor Roseline Bacou. Officially attached to the department in 1957 as a voluntary worker (Charge de mission en titre etranger) he soon familiarised himself with that great collection, devoting himself particularly to the largely still unstudied Italian drawings of the later 16th and 17th centuries. In 1958 and 1959, in collaboration with Roseline Bacou, he selected and catalogued two exhibitions for the Louvre, and in 1960 produced the catalogue of the important group of Italian drawings in the Musee Bonnat at Bayonne.

The drawings in the Metropolitan Museum were originally kept with the paintings, but in 1960 it was decided to create a separate department. The Director, James Rorimer, consulted Philip Pouncey of the British Museum, a leading connoisseur of Italian drawings who had recently been Visiting Professor at Columbia University.

On his frequent visits to the Louvre Pouncey had come to know Bean well in his professional capacity, and had no hesitation in recommending him as eminently well qualified to be curator of the new department.

The collection of drawings at the Metropolitan was somewhat haphazard. Though some of the greatest masters - Leonardo, Correggio, Titian and Michelangelo - were represented by a few superlative examples, and the Venetian 18th century by more than 80 sheets by the two Tiepolos and Francesco Guardi, there had never been any systematic policy of acquisition. In his first year at the museum Bean bought nearly 150 drawings, and in the 30 years of his curatorship the collection doubled in size, more than 1,000 drawings having been acquired by purchase and nearly 800 by gift or bequest. The resources at his disposal were limited, and he wisely decided to concentrate on periods and schools that were then unfashionable and overlooked: at first the then largely unexplored Italian 17th century, and more recently the even now still underrated French 19th-century academic masters.

His success in building up the collection is comparable with KT Parker's legendary achievement at Oxford in the previous generation. Like him, Bean was on friendly terms with every art dealer in Paris and London (especially James Byam Shaw of Colnaghi's, who became a close friend), and with many private collectors whom he charmed into becoming benefactors. He had the same catholic taste and unerring eye for quality in a drawing, however unfamiliar; the same ability to squeeze the maximum value from a small purchase grant; the same keen nose for a bargain; and the same preference for a fine example of a secondary or undervalued master rather than an insignificant scrap by a 'great name'.

A curator is judged not only by his acquisitions, but by the quality of his catalogues. Between 1965 and 1971 he and Felice Stampfle of the Pierpont Morgan Library produced catalogues of three notable exhibitions of Italian drawings from New York collections; his three volumes on the Italian drawings in the Metropolitan Museum appeared between 1979 and 1990, and in 1986 a fourth volume on the French school up to and including the 18th century. His style of cataloguing, to which his early experience of sub-editing the New Yorker must have contributed, was in the Louvre tradition: succinct, lucid, informative and always strictly to the point. In 1963 he and Stampfle had founded the influential quarterly Master Drawings, of which he was associate editor. In 1988 he was made Officier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France, and in 1989 elected a corresponding Fellow of the British Academy.

In spite of his perfect French and fluent Italian, his elegant London-made suits and membership of the Turf Club and the Athenaeum, and the unobtrusive perfectionism of his taste in food and drink, Jacob Bean remained essentially un-Europeanised. His style, his way of speech and his sense of humour were those of an old-fashioned New Yorker.

His last years were shadowed by gradual impairment of vision after an unsuccessful eye-operation, and by Donald Gurney's death in 1987. In 1991 cancer was diagnosed, but in spite of increasing weakness he continued his work from which he retired only six months ago. A devout Catholic, he died supported by his faith.

(Photograph omitted)

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