Published: April 28, 2020
By Madelia Hickman Ring
On Tuesday, April 14, William H. “Bill” Gerdts passed away at the age of 91, at White Plains Hospital in White Plains, N.Y. The cause of death was reported as complications from COVID-19. He was a prominent scholar, curator and collector of American art, with a particular area of expertise in American painting and sculpture from the Eighteenth through the early Twentieth Centuries.
Gerdts was born in Jersey City, N.J., in 1929, the son of William H. Gerdts and Suzanne Zonowick. When he was nine, his family moved to Jackson Heights, Queens, where Gerdts attended PS 69; he later attended Newtown High School in Elmhurst, N.Y., which he graduated from in 1945.
Gerdts’ first exposure to American art was at Amherst College, where he graduated in the winter of 1949. Planning to attend Harvard Law School in the fall of that year, he filled the interim period helping the Amherst Art History department catalog its collection of American art in preparation to be moved into the new Mead Museum. Shortly after arriving at Harvard, Gerdts switched his course of study to Art History, and in 1966, he received his PhD in Art History from Harvard, following 12 years (1954-1966) as resident curator of paintings and sculpture at the Newark Museum in Newark, N.J. Gerdts would later receive honorary degrees, including in 1966 a doctorate of fine arts from Syracuse University and in 1996, from Amherst College, a doctorate of humane letters.
Gerdts’ first post-graduate job was working at the University of Maryland at College Park, where he was an associate professor of art history, a position he held until 1969. He then returned to New York City, where he worked at the Coe Kerr Gallery as a researcher. In 1971, Gerdts joined the faculty in the Art history department at the City University of New York Graduate Center, which was in its infancy and was one of the first programs in the United States devoted to the study and scholarship of American art. He held the position of professor until 1999, when he was conferred the status of Professor Emeritus. Even in retirement, Gerdts continued to lecture or act as a guest curator for museums and universities worldwide.
Gerdts’ scholarship was extensive. He was first published in 1962, with Drawings of Joseph Stella, Rabin & Krueger Gallery (Newark, N.J.) and continued to publish until 2019, with his last work, Theodore Wendel: true notes of American impressionism, a book he co-authored with Laurene Buckley and Theodore Wendel for the Artist Book Foundation in North Adams, Mass. Some of his notable contributions to the scholarship of American art include, Art Across America. Two Centuries of Regional Painting: 1710-1920, (Abbeville Press, 1990); American Impressionism (Abbeville Press, 2004); American Neo-Classic Sculpture (Viking, 1973); and American Still-Life Painting, which he co-authored with Russell E Burke (Praeger, distributed by Pall Mall Press, 1971). Additionally, he was recognized as the authority on Henry Inman and Washington Allston.
Gerdts began collecting Nineteenth Century paintings in the 1950s, when scholarship of American art history had not begun to be seriously pursued. In 2018, he and his wife and professional colleague, Abigail, gave their library and a portion of their collection to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
Gerdts reflected on his work in an essay for a 2017 Godel & Co., exhibition catalog, A lifetime of collecting: selections from the William and Abigail Gerdts Collection of American Still Life Painting: “I have now been a collector in American still life paintings for over 60 years, more if we include Anna Eliza Hardy’s 3 Oranges painting. This pursuit has offered tremendous aesthetic and visual satisfaction, as well as providing intellectual challenges, along with the excitement of discovery. Ownership and value as such were the least of my concerns. If a fellow collector acquired a painting that had also attracted me, but got there first or could afford what I could not, the picture had ‘found a good home’ and that was fine. I enjoyed the beauty of the individual paintings, the success of each painter in creating the simulacrum of the original fruit or flower, his or her ability, not only to create the actual shape of their subject in a fictive space in three-dimensional terms, but also in successfully placing them onto supports as well as manipulating the lighting so as to augment their spatial reality. I equally enjoyed ‘getting to know’ each artist, if admittedly at second hand. That is – getting to recognize the individual style and approach of each painter, his or her preferences for subject matter; fruit, flower and decorative objects, and how each differed from one another. Just look at the peach in Martin Lawler’s painting, at those in the more florid picture by William Mason Brown. They are as different as, well, perhaps ‘night and day.’ Certainly as ‘one very talented painter from another.’ The fond memories of that satisfaction will endure beyond the actual possession of these works of art.”
Howard Godel, Gerdts’ friend and colleague, said, “He knew the American art field of the Eighteenth, Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century intimately. He could bring it up at ease with total recall.” Godel acknowledged that Gerdts’ legacy was not just in the many books and publications he authored or the students he mentored but, more importantly, his library, which was a lifelong creation that became, in Godel’s words, “the greatest American art history library in the world.”
Gerdts is survived by his wife of 43 years, Abigail Booth, as well as his first wife, Elaine Evans Dee. He is also survived by their son, Jeffrey Dee and his wife, Susan; granddaughter Joanna Dee Das and husband Koushik; grandson, James and wife, Pyper; and great-grand-children Jaya and Keerthan.
A memorial service has not been announced.
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