Suhr, William, 1896-1984

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William Suhr was born in Kreuzberg, Germany on March 31, 1896. His parents were U.S. citizens; his paternal grandfather had emmigrated to the United States from Germany in 1850. During his twenties Suhr's father went to Vienna seeking treatment for incipient deafness and to pursue his acting career. When he became completely deaf he gave up acting and stayed on in Germany. As a youth, Suhr acted in the same theatrical company as his mother. When he showed artistic promise as a teenager, he was apprenticed to a stonemason for three years. He then studied painting at the Royal Art Academy in Berlin. It was in Berlin, at the age of 20, that he met the art historian Max Deri, who introduced him to the restoration of painting. At that time there were no schools for restoration; it was a family business and methods were kept secret. Deri gave Suhr a panel to restore along with some advice on how to do it. Soon Suhr was very active as a restorer in Berlin, where the art historian Wilhelm Reinhold Valentiner noticed him in the early 1920's. Valentiner became Director of the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1924. In 1927 Suhr accepted his offer of the job of restorer of paintings. The letter with this offer is in the archive. During the Great Depression, the Detroit Institute of Arts closed temporarily. During this time the staff was dispersed and Walter Heil, Curator of European Art, took the position of Director of the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco in 1933. His association with Heil took Suhr to San Francisco, which he liked very much. In addition to his restoration work on panel paintings in San Francisco, Suhr worked on the Brangwyn murals at the Veterans' Auditorium. In 1936 he also taught a summer course at Mills College titled The Technique, Restoration and Preservation of Paintings, where he met and befriended the artist Lyonel Feininger. By the early 1930's Suhr's expertise in the technique of canvas and panel transfers was sought internationally. This was an especially important treatment in the time before it was possible to stabilize temperature and humidity in buildings. In 1933 Suhr established his studio in New York. In 1935, Mortimer Clapp, director of the Frick Collection, asked Suhr to become the permanent conservator. He also conserved paintings for art institutions in Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, New York, Saint Louis, San Francisco, and Toledo, and for private collectors and for the art trade. In 1939, Suhr was a conservation consultant for "Masterpieces of Art," shown at the New York World's Fair. Later in his carreer he worked extensively on 18th century American paintings for the Kennedy Galleries in New York. Suhr came to painting conservation at a pivotal time, when there were great paintings on the market and before museums had their own trained conservationists. Some of the notable paintings that Suhr worked on in the course of his career include St. George by Mantegna (Galleria dell'Accademia), which Suhr saved from severe blistering during the exhibition Masterpieces of Italian Art lent by the Royal Italian Government November 18, 1939 to January 9, 1940, at the Art Institute of Chicago, and which he considered one of the great restorations of his career; St. Jerome in his Study, now attributed to the Jan van Eyck workshop (Detroit Institute of Arts), which was reattributed to Jan van Eyck when Suhr found that the portions thought to be by a second artist (Petrus Christus) had been overpainted; The Polish Rider by Rembrandt (Frick Collection), of which the bottom four inches that had been destroyed by fire and clumsily repainted were repainted by Suhr, bringing the horse's hooves back into perspective; and the Annunciation Triptych (or Merode Altarpiece) by Robert Campin (Cloisters Museum), which is perhaps the most important painting that Suhr worked on. Particularly noted for his work on Rembrandt paintings, Suhr was said to have held more Rembrandts in his hands than anyone since Rembrandt. As Suhr states in "The Restoration of the Merode Altarpiece," published in The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, his work was guided by the belief that "[r]estorations should preserve the original and attenuate losses in a manner that will permit the observer's eye to pass over gaps in the paint film without distress." Suhr was a traveler and mountain climber. He traveled in Europe, North Africa, and North America. He and his wife, Henriette Suhr, created an extensive garden on thirteen acres at their home, Rocky Hills, in Mt. Kisco, New York, which will be open to the public in the future. He was also a painter, working mostly in watercolor, in the course of his travels.
Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn Lyonel Feininger papers, 1883-1960. Houghton Library
creatorOf Suhr, William, 1896-1984. Ledger of painting conservation treatment / William Suhr. Frick Art Reference Library
creatorOf Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. Director's Office Records, 1955-1977. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, The Clark
creatorOf Suhr, William, 1896-1984. William Suhr papers, ca. 1846-2003, 1928-1982. Getty Research Institute
creatorOf Suhr, William, 1896-1984. William Suhr Conservation Ledgers, 1938-1957. Frick Art Reference Library of The Frick Collection
referencedIn Suhr, William, 1900-1984 : [miscellaneous ephemeral material]. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Thomas J. Watson Library
creatorOf Cunningham, Charles Crehore, 1910-1979. Curatorial Office Records of Charles Cunningham, 1973-1977. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, The Clark
creatorOf Suhr, William, 1896-1984. William Suhr letters, 1927-1959. Archives of American Art
creatorOf William Suhr papers, 1846-2003, 1927-1982 Getty Research Institute
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Art Institute of Chicago (Masterpieces of Italian art) corporateBody
associatedWith Barnes Foundation corporateBody
associatedWith Campin, Robert, d. 1444 person
associatedWith Cleveland Museum of Art corporateBody
associatedWith Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies corporateBody
associatedWith Cunningham, Charles Crehore, 1910-1979. person
associatedWith Dalí, Salvador, 1904-1989 person
associatedWith Detroit Institute of Arts. corporateBody
associatedWith Eyck, Jan van, 1390-1440 person
correspondedWith Feininger, Lyonel, 1871-1956 person
associatedWith Feininger, Lyonel, 1871-1956. person
associatedWith Forbes, Edward Waldo, 1873- person
associatedWith Frick Collection. corporateBody
associatedWith Gerson, H. (Horst) person
associatedWith Gettens, Rutherford John person
associatedWith Heinemann, Rudolph person
associatedWith James, Edward, 1907-1984 person
associatedWith Kennedy Galleries corporateBody
associatedWith Metropolitan Museum of Art corporateBody
associatedWith M. H. de Young Memorial Museum corporateBody
associatedWith Mondschein, A. F. person
associatedWith Munhall, Edgar person
associatedWith New York World’s Fair, 1939-1940 corporateBody
associatedWith Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 1606-1669 person
associatedWith Richardson, Edgar Preston, 1902-1985 person
associatedWith Rivera, Diego, 1886-1957 person
associatedWith Rockefeller, John D. Jr., 1874-1960 person
associatedWith Rosenberg and Stiebel person
associatedWith Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. corporateBody
associatedWith Stoner, Joyce Hill person
associatedWith Stout, George L. person
associatedWith Thyssen-Bornemisza, Heinrich, Baron person
associatedWith Toledo Museum of Art corporateBody
associatedWith Turner, J. M. W. (Joseph Mallord William), 1775-1851 person
associatedWith Valentiner, Wilhelm Reinhold, 1880-1958. person
Place Name Admin Code Country
Mount Kisco NY US
Subject
Conservation and restoration
Conservation and restoration
Occupation
Conservator
Activity

Person

Death 1984-01-19

Birth 1896-03-31

Americans,

Germans

German,

English

Information

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SNAC ID: 84293687