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A shy pioneer: in the April 1981 issue, a new biography of William R. Valentiner by Margaret Sterne prompted Denys Sutton to recall this German-born former director of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

From the start, Valentiner, who seems to have been of a shy disposition, came across interesting people. He became assistant to Heinrich Thode, the brilliant professor of Art History at Heidelberg, who was passionately in love with Isadora Duncan ... Though Thode and Valentiner did not see eye to eye, the older man recommended him for the post of assistant to Hofstede de Groot, then a well-known expert on Dutch painting, living in The Hague.

Valentiner took to his employer and learnt much from him, but detested the convivial bachelor evenings given by Hofstede de Groot at which guests were expected to polish off one hundred oysters a head, washed down with champagne ...

A major change in his life came when in 1924 he was appointed Director of the Detroit Institute of Arts. Mrs Sterne's account of his yearn at Detroit will please those who never cease to derive enjoyment from the American museum world, incidentally, one of the last refuges of the feudal system; in Valentiner's time his main 'overlord' was Edsel Hunt, with whom, fortunately, he was on excellent terms. That there was much to do at the museum was obvious and, like many other museum officials, Valentiner had to cope with a new building as well as with donors and trustees; gifts flowed into the collection during these years, many of them of great importance, including a French gothic chapel, a sculpture by Pisano, a Van Eyck, a Giovanni Bellini, a Breughel and a Rembrandt ...

During the course of 1930, Valentiner visited California with his friend Arthur von Daehene (an assistant at the Van Diemen Gallery in New York). While there, through Helen Mills, the tennis champion and his Egeria, Valentiner met Diego Rivera; once back in Detroit he persuaded his art committee to commission this Mexican artist to execute murals for the inner court, for which Edsel Ford paid, and which provide yet further testimony to Valentiner's love of modern art.

Only those with detailed knowledge can assess Valentiner's achievement at Detroit but the words used by the Arts Commission on the occasion of his retirement that he found the Institute of Arts 'a small provincial gallery and left it as a great museum' are surely exact.

His major purchases outweigh his failures, of which one of the most serious was the Portrait of a donor, which he had bought as a Raphael in 1935, but which turned out to be fake. A Monet, a Degas and an Odilion Redon had been disposed of to raise funds for its purchase ...

Retirement was not the opening for a peaceful chapter for Valentiner. On his arrival in New York, his wife, who had fallen in love with the sculptor Ernst Karl Mundt, not only insisted on a divorce, but secured an extremely tough settlement. Mrs Sterne does not explain the reasons that compelled Valentiner to accept it, but their effect was to prevent him from disposing of any item from his increasingly valuable collection.
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Title Annotation:From the Apollo archives
Author:Sutton, Denys
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2004
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