Biographical / Historical
Perry Townsend Rathbone (1911-2000) was a prominent museum director who worked primarily in Boston and New York City. He was an early supporter of German Expressionism in America.
Rathbone was director of the City Art Museum of St. Louis from 1940-1955, moving on to direct the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston from 1954-1972, where he led a period of extensive reform. After retiring from the museum, he worked for one year for the Chase Manhattan Bank as an art consultant. Rathbone worked as director and senior vice president of Christies USA auction house from 1973-1987. After 1987, he continued working at Christies as a consultant.
Rathbone was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania on July 3, 1911 and grew up in New Rochelle, New York. He attended Harvard College, majoring in Art History and graduating in 1933. He then completed the graduate "museum course" taught by Professor Paul Sachs in 1934. The Paul Sachs museum course was famous for cultivating future directors at some of this country's most prestigious museums. After Harvard, Rathbone was appointed as curator of Alger House (later renamed the Grosse Pointe War Memorial), a branch of the Detroit Institute of Arts. Rathbone directed the ''Masterpieces of Art'' exhibit at the 1939 New York World's Fair. The success of the exhibit led to his appointment as director of the City Art Museum of St. Louis, Missouri in 1940 at the age of 29, making him the youngest American museum director at the time.
During World War II, Rathbone served in the U.S. Navy from late 1942-1945. He was a commissioned officer in charge of the Navy Art and Poster Section, Office of Public Relations in Washington, D.C. He supervised five Navy "combat artists," who painted naval battles and depicted the daily lives of soldiers. He also served as an officer in New Calcedonia. He separated from service as a Lieutenant Commander in late 1945. This collection does not contain records directly related to his military service. In 1945 Rathbone married Euretta de Cosson while on leave in Washington, D.C. They had three children together: Peter, Eliza, and Belinda.
Rathbone resumed his position as the director of the City Art Museum of St. Louis after the war. The Detroit Institute of Arts director William R. Valentiner introduced Rathbone to German Expressionism. Rathbone helped the German Expressionist painter Max Beckmann, labeled a ''degenerate artist'' by Hitler, and his wife immigrate to America and then arranged a teaching position for Beckmann at Washington University. Rathbone and Beckmann became close, and in 1948, Rathbone organized a Beckmann retrospective at the City Art Museum. Beckmann made a portrait of Rathbone and one of his wife Euretta. Rathbone gave the eulogy at Beckmann's funeral in 1950.
In 1955 Rathbone became the director of the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston. During his tenure there he expanded the museum by 80,000 square feet, doubled the staff, and oversaw the renovations of 57 of the Museum's 189 galleries. He mounted exhibitions of Rembrandt, Matisse, Modigliani, Cezanne, van Gogh and Courbet. The Boston Museum's first acquisitions of Pablo Picasso, Alexander Calder, Constantine Brancusi, Paul Klee, Alberto Giacometti and other works by 20th-century artists occurred under Rathbone's directorship. Rathbone also served as curator of paintings and wrote the catalog essays for many of the museum's exhibitions. Working with Frances Weeks Hallowell, he established the first "Ladies Committee" for the museum, which substantially increased membership. He was appointed as Chevalier de Légion d'Honneur by the French government in 1964.
In 1969, the Museum of Fine Arts purchased what was believed to be a Raphael portrait of Eleonora Gonzaga, 1505, from a Genoa art dealer. The work was meant to be the highlight of the museum's centennial celebration. However controversy arose when the Italian government alleged that the work was smuggled out of the country and the museum was forced to return the painting to the Italian government. The situation caused Rathbone to resign in 1972.
At the request of David Rockefeller, Rathbone became an art consultant to Chase Manhattan Bank for one year. In 1973, he became director of Christie's auction house in New York and senior vice president in 1977, working there until 1987, when he retired but still worked as a consultant.
Perry Townsend Rathbone died on January 22, 2000 at the age of 88.