Arts Spotlight: George Abrams ’57

George Abrams
George S. Abrams, newly appointed Knight in the Order of Orange-Nassau of the Kingdom of The Netherlands. Photo by Steve Gilbert.

George S. Abrams ’57 is a Harvard alumnus and Crimson trustee who recently donated 330 Dutch Old Master drawings to the Harvard Art Museums. The Crimson spoke with Abrams to discuss his gift, his Dutch artwork experience, and his hopes for the field.

The Harvard Crimson: So a lot has been going on recently—you’ve just been knighted by the Kingdom of the Netherlands, correct?

George S. Abrams: Yes, there’s been a lot of activity in the last ten days. There was a dinner on Friday, where there were 150 people from all over. I was there, essentially, to make public that I was giving 330 additional pieces to the Harvard Art Museums. I surprised some people by the announcement, and they surprised me when the Dutch Consul General stood up and made me a knight.

But what’s important is that I gave an additional gift, which I felt Harvard was the appropriate place for. It’s 330 Dutch 17th century drawings to go along with the 140 that my wife and I had previously given in 1999. It’s a good home for art because Harvard has been the center of interest in Old Master drawings since the early 20th century in the United States. There are great scholars and teachers and curators—it’s one of the major places in the world for Old Master drawings.

THC: Tell me about the very first Dutch drawing you ever acquired.

GSA: My wife and I went to a little auction in Boston, where a drawing of an old man—a watercolor—was sold. It was by a Dutch artist named Dusart, and the piece was a lovely little caricature. I looked at it, and I studied it—and what amazed me was that this delicate work on paper had survived for over 350 years. It was in good shape. It seemed to me amazing that a little work could survive and be cherished by people for all those years. We acquired it—it wasn’t expensive—at that auction, and we still have it. That was the beginning of a number of drawings. We shortly thereafter went to Europe, and my wife and I went to many dealers and looked at drawings. And then we started studying. We went to libraries; we had a large library of our own. We began acquiring books to study. We went to the major museums in Europe. We built our library, and we slowly built our collection.

THC: So you still have that first piece?

GSA: Yes.

THC: Do you have any other pieces that you’ll never give away?

GSA: Well, I have given away some drawings that I never thought I would, as part of the groups we gave to Harvard. There’s a problem in that you can’t take a drawing with you, so you have to find a good home for it. My wife died a number of years ago. I’ve been continuing to collect, but we’d been thinking about what a good home would be—and for Old Master drawings, Harvard is the place. It’s got the history, the tradition, the teachers, the collection. The students use it. It seemed to be the appropriate place to give most of our drawings. The total now is 140 plus 330 (or 470). I’ll give more, as time goes on. We’re trying to improve the group and add to it regularly.

THC: When you were collecting heavily, did you enjoy the daily process of acquiring art?

GSA: It’s a wonderful way to spend time. The chase for drawings and the looking—the whole process is an adventure. For the years my wife did it with me, we went off and had an adventure every time we went looking. Every time we went to Europe, we visited other collectors and went to auctions. It was just a very exciting thing. Not for everybody, but for us.

THC: What do you hope for the future study of Dutch artwork—what would you like to see in the field?

GSA: I think it’s a field that’s continually in the drawing area, producing new information about 17th century artists. There are scholars in Europe and the United States who are working now, every day, on interesting aspects of Dutch 17th century art. This Dutch period in the 17th century was a breakthrough change from prior activities. When the Dutch broke away from the Catholic Church, the artists were able—and did—turn to life around them: the people, the landscapes, the still lifes, the food, the events. And they drew about what they saw. That was a period when extraordinary geniuses sprang up and produced these wonderful works of art. Their paper had a magical spell to it. The period lasted for perhaps one hundred years, but it changed the way we perceive art. Somehow or other, these pieces of paper were loved and preserved by people over the centuries, and they were passed on. They come down to us today. That’s part of the excitement of collecting in the Old Master field.

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