Famous art historian, former Clark leader dies

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George Heard Hamilton admires a painting at the Clark Art Institute in 1972. (Photo by William Teague, courtesy of the Clark.)
WILLIAMSTOWN — George Heard Hamilton, former director of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute and professor of art, emeritus, at Williams College, died Monday in Williamstown. He was 93. Considered one of the foremost interpreters of early modern art, his work widely influenced scholarship in the field. His nine books included “Manet and His Critics” (1954), “Painting and Sculpture in Europe, 1880-1940” (1967), and “Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture” (1970). Professor Hamilton taught from 1936 to 1966 at Yale University and served as associate director of the Yale University Art Gallery. "In the 1940s through the 1960s, George Heard Hamilton was 'Mr. Modern Art' at Yale," said Robert Herbert, world-renowned Impressionism scholar and professor emeritus at Mount Holyoke College. "If you were a graduate student in the United States at that time, George Heard Hamilton was ‘Mr. Modern Art.' It's very difficult to express why he is admired so much. It has a lot to do with the kind of moral compass he had and his understanding that the study of 20th-century art had to be tied to literature and culture, especially poetry." In 1966, Professor Hamilton moved from New Haven to Williamstown to join the Clark Art Institute. He founded and served as the first director of the Graduate Program in the History of Art, a master's degree program run jointly by the Clark and Williams College. "The renowned scholarship of George Heard Hamilton and his accomplishments as director of the Clark Art Institute from 1966 to 1977 cannot be underestimated," said Michael Conforti, current Clark director. "As one of the foremost historians, critics and scholars of the 20th century, George left an indelible impact on the Clark and the museum world. He is one of the few notable art historians of the last half of the 20th century who chose to oversee an art museum. He established the research and academic foundation for the Clark Art Institute through the founding of the Clark's art history library, now one of the largest art history libraries in the country, and he established the Williams College/Clark Art Institute Graduate Program in the History of Art, which, too, has become one of the leading programs of its kind in the United States. These programs have continued to distinguish the institution as both a pioneering center for scholarship and one of the leading art museums in the nation." Michael Shapiro, director of the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Ga., a student of Professor Hamilton's in the graduate program, said, "George Heard Hamilton's 1975 seminar at the Clark Art Institute on Impressionism was discursive in style and piquant in tone. His wry observations on the changing seasons in the Berkshires, or his listening to Bach on NPR or the virtues of the Oxford English Dictionary tied back to the subject at hand and also reflected the unending curiosity and activity of his mind." Professor Hamilton also initiated the Clark's full-scale exhibition program in 1976. Shows during his tenure included “Jongkind and the Pre-Impressionists” (1976) and “The Grand Mogul: Imperial Painting in India, 1600-1660” (1978). Under his leadership, an important building addition housing the library, auditorium and exhibition galleries was completed in 1973. Professor Hamilton's noteworthy acquisitions include Monet's “Rouen Cathedral,” two major print collections, one of late 19th-century prints and the other of works by Albrecht Dürer, and a 1968 gift of 12 northern Renaissance paintings from the executors of Gov. Lehman's Estate and the Edith and Herbert Lehman Foundation. Professor Hamilton served as a trustee of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, vice-chairman of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., and vice president of the Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, Conn. He also had been president of the College Art Association of America, a trustee of the Association of Art Museum Directors, and president of the American section of the International Association of Art Critics. In 1973, he was named a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in London, and in 1970, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was selected as Slade professor of art at the University of Cambridge in 1971 and as the Samuel H. Kress professor in residence at the National Gallery of Art in 1978-79. He earned Yale Graduate School's Wilbur Lucius Cross Medal and the Association of Art Dealers of America's Award for Distinguished Accomplishment in Art History. Williams awarded him an honorary degree in 1977, and the Graduate Program in Art History initiated The George Heard Hamilton Lecture Series in 1989. He retired from Williams in 1975 but continued to teach until 1985 in the graduate program. He retired as director of the Clark in 1977. Professor Hamilton was born on June 23, 1910, to Frank Arthur Hamilton and Georgia Heard Hamilton. He grew up in Pittsburgh, Pa., before earning his bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. at Yale in 1932, 1934 and 1942. He was a research assistant at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore. Md., from 1934 to 1936. He leaves his wife, Polly (Wiggin) Hamilton of Williamstown; a daughter, Jennet Hamilton LaCasse of Royal Palm Beach, Fla.; a son, Richard Heard Hamilton of Edgartown; and two grandchildren.

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