Virginia Deknatel, collector of art, museum benefactor

By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / April 18, 2009
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In love with her husband and the art he studied as a Harvard professor, Virginia Herrick Deknatel began collecting decades before the field grew to be as expensive and competitive as it is today.

"She grew up in an era when the art world wasn't the big deal it is now," said her son, John of Brookline. "They really knew Picasso's dealers in Paris and collectors in London. That small world was their life in the '30s and '40s."

Mrs. Deknatel, who used her resources and her discerning taste to bolster collections at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Harvard University Art Museums, died Jan. 6 at her home in Cambridge. She was 102.

Well into her 90s, Mrs. Deknatel visited the MFA frequently, dazzling those she met with her precise attention to art and her still-keen mind.

"People were always astonished to meet this incredibly intelligent, gracious, and kind woman," said Clifford Ackley, chairman of the prints, drawings, and photographs department at the MFA and the Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro curator of prints and drawings. "She also was a great reader. If we had read and discussed the same book, she always remembered more than I did."

Born in Erie, Pa., Ginny Herrick grew up in Olean, N.Y., the second of four children. After graduating in 1929 from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., she traveled to the Soviet Union with a group that was studying experimental theater.

En route on the ship, she met Frederick B. Deknatel, a graduate student in art history, and they knew right away they would remain together. Years later, she told a granddaughter: "It was instant. Everyone knew."

The Deknatels married in 1931 and traveled to Spain for their honeymoon, which was also a research trip for his doctoral work on 13th-century Gothic sculpture, as he studied the cathedrals in Burgos and Leon. That trip set the pattern for the rest of their marriage, which included regular trips across the Atlantic.

"My parents spent a lot of time in Europe," their son said. When you were a fine arts professor in the '30s and the '40s, that's what you did. They always stayed in same hotel in Paris, the Pont Royale on the Left Bank. They left boxes of books there and a pile of stuff they would need, because they were always coming back the next spring."

Frederick Deknatel taught at Harvard for some 40 years, where he became the William Door Boardman professor. His writings on the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch were among the first significant assessments in English of his work.

With her husband, Mrs. Deknatel began collecting works by artists such as Pablo Picasso, Paul Cezanne, Paul Klee, Eugene Delacroix, and Emile Nolde. Mrs. Deknatel also purchased sculptures by Henry Moore, prints and drawings by Jasper Johns, along with prints and sculptures by other artists.

After her husband died in 1973 at age 68, Mrs. Deknatel became "a classic Cambridge independent widow, and she really had reinvented her life in many ways," her son said.

Through her marriage and after her husband died, Mrs. Deknatel found herself miles away politically from her conservative upbringing.

"My mother was not the conservative Republican that her father was in upstate New York, and marrying a Harvard professor and living in Cambridge was not considered politically correct," her son said. "One of the jokes about her was that when Al Gore lost the election, she wouldn't speak with anybody for weeks. She was completely inconsolable."

She stayed involved in the fine arts community, providing funds at the MFA and the Harvard University Art Museums to support purchasing modern art.

"With the establishment of this fund in their names, we will be able to honor their friendship and legacy of support for modern art at Harvard in perpetuity," James Cuno, then the director of the Harvard museums, said in 2001 upon creating the Frederick Brockway and Virginia Herrick Deknatel Fund.

Such was also the case at the MFA, where the paper conservation laboratory is named for Mrs. Deknatel.

"She gave us, from the family foundation, money to establish a fund for the purchase of modern prints and drawings, which buys us about two or three prints or drawings a year of significance," Ackley said. "That's the biggest purchase fund that's been established in decades for this department."

Until a few years ago, Mrs. Deknatel continued to regularly visit the museums, where conversations were as important to her as the prints, paintings, and sculptures she had helped acquire.

"She would invariably end up holding court," her son said. "She would be at a table and all the people who knew and loved her would come and sit down to talk. The people were as important as the art, in a way, and she did that into her late 90s."

In addition to John, Mrs. Deknatel leaves two other sons, William of Cherryfield, Maine, and Charles of Somerville; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

A service has been held.