In Memoriam: Richard L. Feigen ’47

The Frederick Gunn School community mourns the passing of Richard L. Feigen ’47, whom Sotheby’s hailed as “a pivotal figure on the international art scene for the last 63 years.” According to a statement from Richard L. Feigen & Co., the eponymous gallery he founded, Feigen passed away on January 29, 2021. He was 90 years old.

Feigen was inducted into the school’s Arts and Letters Hall of Fame in 2012. According to the citation honoring him, he came to what was then The Gunnery from Chicago in the fall of 1946 to complete his senior year before heading to Yale University, where he earned his undergraduate degree, and then to Harvard, for his MBA. “After that, Dick launched a career in the world of fine art representation, becoming the most noteworthy Gunnery alumnus in this realm. Dick inaugurated his first art gallery in Chicago in 1957, where he exhibited 20th century masters, concentrating on German Expressionism and Surrealism. In 1963, he opened a second gallery in New York City, showing work by such classic 19th and 20th century artists as Van Gogh, Monet, Picasso, Brâncuşi, and Mondrian. By 1965, and until 1973, Dick was also operating what was the first gallery in SoHo, which showed cutting-edge contemporary art.”

He sold works of art covering seven centuries to some 121 museums worldwide and counted among his clients the Louvre, the Metropolitan, the National Galleries of Washington and London, the Getty, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Boston, Stockholm and Berlin.

“He knew and represented contemporary artists such as Jasper Johns, Jean Dubuffet, Joseph Cornell and James Rosenquist,” Sotheby’s said, noting that Feigen was a generous donor and lender to museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Yale University Art Gallery, where parts of his personal collection can be seen today. 

"The legendary art dealer and collector, Richard Feigen, was remarkable for the breadth of his taste. He once described himself as a ‘collector in dealer's clothes.’ Richard always bought in advance of taste and prospered when the world followed him,” recalled Petter Sutton ’68, a friend who has also dedicated his life and career to art. He served for 17 years as Executive Director of the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, and prior to that, was head of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, senior director of Christie's Old Master paintings department, and a senior art adviser at Citicorp.  

Of Feigen, Sutton said: “He dealt and collected everything from early Italian Renaissance gold grounds to Contemporary art. He sold works to more than 100 museums and gave Joseph Beuys and Francis Bacon their first shows in the U.S. He dealt and personally collected French and British Romantic art. (A magnificent Turner hung beside a dozen works by the rare and short-lived Richard Parkes Bonington in his living room). Richard was also a generous man, donating a Carlo Saraceni to the Met, and exhibiting his extraordinarily large early Italian paintings collection in the Yale Art Gallery in 2010. Italian Baroque was also well represented in his collection, with a superb Annibale Carracci and Orazio Gentileschi's masterful Danae, now in the Getty Museum. His German Expressionist collection was no less distinguished, indeed he had at one point so many works by Max Beckman that you wondered if the artist was still alive and painting in the backroom. Richard could also be blunt and outspoken, rarely suffering fools gladly, as his memoirs, ‘Tales from the Art Crypt,’ attest. He abhorred the diminished role of connoisseurship in art history and was contemptuous of the corporate mentality of many museums. 

“And yet he had a good heart, was loyal to his friends, and was a rare liberal progressive in the art trade. I will certainly miss him," Sutton said. 

In 2019, Sarah Crompton interviewed Feigen at his home in New York for Christie’s, noting that he “had studied art history briefly at Yale, but was otherwise self-taught. Yet his instinct often proved sound. His book and his life are full of tales of finding an undiscovered or misattributed masterpiece tucked away in an auction catalogue or antique shop, consulting scholars on its provenance and finally selling it, often to a museum or gallery. Regularly, he didn’t quite know what he had bought until after he had bought it — an extraordinary talent he cannot explain.”

Crompton wrote that his most favored paintings, including three Fra Angelicos, ended up at Yale University Art Gallery, where two are still on view, including “Saint Joseph,” from 1418-20, and “The Vision of Saint Lucy,” from 1427–29.

“They’ve got my whole dining room,” Feigen said in the Christie’s article. “All the Italian paintings from the 14th century on. I’ve sent them off on loan, because the apartment above this one was sold and the man who bought it is going to completely remodel it, and I felt the dust and everything else would be hazardous for the paintings. It will be a lot of disruption, a lot of dirt.”

Feigen possessed a lifelong desire “to acquire the good and the beautiful,” Crompton observed, quoting him as saying, “I cannot imagine life without art.”

According to the statement from his gallery, Feigen remained active in his work until the end of his life. “At his last location on 77th Street, Richard continued his daily work schedule and enjoyed seeing colleagues and clients who came by to pay tribute to the legendary elder statesman. He was passionate, he was brilliant, and he was never shy of giving his opinion to the high and mighty, be that about a particular painting, the policy of a museum or how a collection should grow.  We admired his vision, grit and stamina until the end.

“Collectors and museums all over the world have benefited from his vision and he was generous with the institutions that he loved. He started out by collecting modern works and later, the dialogue with art historians such as Sidney Freedberg and Laurence Kanter resulted in one of the finest private collections of Italian pictures in the country. To his alma mater Yale (B.A.'52) he gifted many of his renowned works of the early Italian Renaissance,” the statement said, continuing, “In 2019 Richard donated Carlo Saraceni’s magnificent altarpiece, ‘The Dormition of the Virgin,’ to the Met in honor of Max Hollein and in celebration of the Museum’s 150th anniversary. Keith Christiansen calls it, ‘a major gift that transforms the Museum’s representation of baroque painting.’”

“Above all, Richard was a passionate collector. A giant of the art world, he will be fondly remembered for his larger-than-life personality and for all the lives he touched,” his gallery said.

Above: Richard Feigen '47, photographed at his home in New York in 2019 for Christie's. Photo by Daniel Dorsa