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(Editor's Note: Growing up in daily contact with great works of art was a privilege enjoyed by UM faculty member Nicholas Delbanco, Robert Frost Distinguished University Professor of English Language and Literature. Born in London during World War II to refugees from Hitler’s Germany, Delbanco says his parents, “though not major players in the world of art,” were people for whom art “was understood to be of consequence, to count.” They traveled and collected widely, living amidst Impressionist paintings, African art, and Old Master prints. His father was an accomplished part-time painter on intimate terms with the great collections of Europe and the United States. “My first memories of life with him,” Delbanco writes, “have much to do with museums; he was an inveterate—even an obsessive—visitor.”

Kurt Delbanco’s passion for collecting and for museums came together in 2008 in the form of a gift to UMMA of a pristine first edition of Francisco Goya’s Los Caprichos (along with a first edition of Goya’s Los Proverbios) in honor of his son, Nicholas. These remarkable prints are currently on view, and in the spirit of celebrating recent gifts of art from passionate collectors and their families, we’re presenting a few of Professor Delbanco’s personal reflections on familial relationships with arts and museums from “A Visit to the Gallery,” an essay that appeared in the literary quarterly Raritan in winter 2008. His words remind us that moments of great intimacy with works of art can be everyone’s birthright when there is a museum nearby.)

Nicholas Delbanco Shares Memories of an Art-Loving Family

Nicholas Delbanco and his father

Nicholas Delbanco and his father, Kurt Delbanco (1909–2007), in front of a painting by Hans Hoffman in the mid–1990s.

In my early childhood I had small volition; I simply assumed [museum going]… was what people did and how they viewed the world. Later, when the age of anxiety set in—which is to say, when I first learned to be embarrassed by my parents—I can remember protesting, Do we have to, can’t we stay in the hotel, can we eat something first at least— while [my father] set off, his sons in tow, to the Duomo or Uffizi or Accademia or Louvre or some less trafficked building or church whose guardian was just about to shut the doors when this importunate person approached. In those days the lighting was quite often dim, controlled by some custodian or monk who dozed beside the switch; always my father would walk up to him, a fistful of lire or francs outstretched. I would stand as far away as possible, in an agony of discomfiture, but the bribe did work and the lights went on and, hey presto, Masaccio or Matthias der Mahler appeared.

Other children spent time with their fathers playing baseball or fishing or working on cars. I spent Saturday mornings at his side ‘Looking Hard and Often’ Nicholas Delbanco Shares Memories of an Art-Loving Family painting or sitting for portraits, because he was a more than Sunday painter and an accomplished one. Several of his portraits are in fact in public places—the National Portrait Gallery, Harvard College, the Museum of the City of New York. He never quite had the daring or drive to make a career of it, and was a collector rather more than a creator. But he had genuine talent and did love to draw and, in his great old age, declared,“A painting a day keeps the doctor away.” When he came home from a business trip it was always with something acquired en route: a Zuni Bowl or hermaphroditic standing figure with breasts and penis I’d stare at in wonder, an etching by Rembrandt or woodcut by Dürer or poster by his favorite, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Lautrec’s Aristide Bruant turned his broad back above my childhood bed; Yvette Guilbert smiled soulfully down; La Goulue lifted her leg. There were oil paintings in the dining room by Lovis Corinth and Chagall. And always, when we traveled, it was to the museum or the monastery or the chapel at the edge of town my father took us first.

My uncle too took me along, though he was a genuine expert and—that daunting word—connoisseur. As a student of art history my father’s elder brother had earned a doctorate for writing on Abraham Bloemart; in pre-war London he established—along with two equally knowledgeable partners—a gallery in Old Master paintings and prints. Later, the partners went “modern”— or, anyway, as far as Walter Sickert and Rodin. An early memory, for me, and a source of unending if childish delight, was the game we’d play together. We’d enter a room of a museum— and sometimes, to my certain knowledge, one he hadn’t visited before. Then I’d run up to a canvas or a piece of statuary and, having read the attribution and blocked it with my reaching fist, would ask my uncle who’d produced it when. He was never wrong. He always got it right. He knew, it seemed to me, everything, every single artist’s name, and if the attribution was to that greatest of all creators, Mr. or Ms. Anon, he’d know the country and the century instead. When I asked him how he did it he said Handwriting, he could read an artist’s pen or brush-stroke as though the name were signed.

El Sueño de la Razon produce Monstruos (The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters)

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes
Spain, 1746–1828
El Sueño de la Razon produce Monstruos (The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters), 1799
Etching and aquatint
Gift of Kurt Delbanco in honor of Nicholas Delbanco, and partial purchase with funds from the W. Hawkins Ferry Fund, 2008/1.152

A final reference to my uncle, and I’ll let him rest in peace. One of the paintings in his living room was an important early Rubens—an oil he had discovered in an estate sale somewhere when that sort of thing was still possible in England. He bought it in the 1950s and kept it for most of his life. It’s an energetic canvas—“The Fall of Phaeton”—full of prowess and youthful exuberance, the young genius taking a subject and proving how much he could do. There are horses, clouds, the sun-shot sky, a chariot, the radiant muscularity of an overreaching hero soon to die.

The painting hangs now in our own National Gallery, in the nation’s capital, and I visit it each time I go to Washington. It’s a bittersweet encounter and a long shared history that, when I approach it, revives. There’s the smell of pipe-smoke, of cigars, of chocolate and schnapps and tea being poured; there’s my childhood, then young manhood, the desultory chit-chat of the elders of the tribe. Most likely they’re speaking in German; there’s music and roses and chess. Somewhere there’s a whiff of turpentine and linseed oil, somewhere Chanel #5. I’ve known this canvas all my life, leaned up against it often. But if I dared to touch the thing the bells would no doubt whistle and a guard approach…

So possibly this too is what we find in museums: this thing I’ve called a privacy made public. Or call it an intimate distance, an ownership by adjacency—for I don’t think it matters much that long ago and far away this particular Peter Paul Rubens hung in my uncle’s house. Each of us can own a painting by looking hard and often enough; each of us can make it part of our personal history and, by extension, our family’s lore. Ideally, and by extension, we each own it all.