William Gerdts, Revered Scholar of American Art, Remembered

The Graduate Center mourns the passing of Professor Emeritus William Gerdts, one of the first faculty members to join The Graduate Center’s doctoral program in art history and a leader in the study of American art. Gerdts died this month at the age of 91 from complications of COVID-19.
Described as a “giant in the field of American art,” Gerdts specialized in 18th and 19th century painting and sculpture. From the start of his career, he helped to develop and enlarge the scholarship devoted to American art, as a curator and teacher and through his library and extensive writings. His expertise and authority enhanced a field that was in its infancy when he began.
He was curator of painting and sculpture at the Newark Museum, gallery director at the University of Maryland, and vice president of the Coe Kerr Gallery in New York.
He joined the faculty of Brooklyn College and The Graduate Center in 1971 and continued teaching at CUNY until 1999. He also held visiting professorships at Johns Hopkins University, Rutgers University, and Washington University.
“Professor Gerdts was a devoted friend, ally, and supporter of many of his students, and we will greatly miss his warmth, good humor, and deeply caring spirit,” said Bruce Weber (Ph.D. ’85, Art History), who studied with Gerdts from his junior year as an art history major at Brooklyn College through his doctorate. “Professor Gerdts’ accomplishments as a scholar and teacher in the field of American art are unrivaled, and his voluminous writings on a remarking range of artists, subjects, and media will continue to educate and entice the minds of the art-interested public for well into the future, and inspire scores of current and future scholars in the field. We will miss him dearly.” Weber wrote a tribute to Gerdts in The Magazine Antiques
Gerdts was the author of more than 20 major books, many described as the definitive work on the subject, including Masters of the Humble Truth: Masterpieces of American Still Life, 1801-1930; American Impressionists; and the three volume, Art Across America. Two Centuries of Regional painting: 1710-1920. His journal articles, essays, and reviews were published widely.
The personal library and art he collected, called by one art expert, “the greatest American art library in the world,” were donated to The National Gallery in Washington, D.C.
His many honors included honorary doctor of humane letters from Amherst College, where he received his undergraduate degree, and honorary doctor of fine arts from Syracuse University. Gerdts was born in New Jersey and grew up in Queens. He received his doctorate in art history from Harvard University.
A tribute to him noted that “his greatest pride was in his doctoral students who have gone on to influential positions as teachers, curators, and advisers at colleges, universities, museums, and galleries around the country.”

Submitted on: APR 24, 2020

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