Campus & Community

Oberhuber, curator and professor, dies, 72

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Konrad Oberhuber, curator of drawings and professor of fine arts from 1975 to 1987, died of brain cancer on Sept. 12 in San Diego. He was 72 years old.

Born in Linz, Austria, he studied at the University of Vienna, and worked for a decade at the Albertina, the renowned Viennese museum. Before coming to Harvard he served as curator at the National Gallery of Art. When he left Cambridge in 1987, it was to return to the Albertina as its director, a post he held until his retirement in 2000.

As an art historian, Oberhuber was best known as the world’s pre-eminent authority on the drawings of Raphael, but his expertise extended beyond the Italian Renaissance in many directions and across five centuries. In every European and American museum collection he visited, he correctly attributed unidentified and misidentified drawings by French, Netherlandish, Italian, and German draftsmen.

An engaging and charismatic teacher and speaker, Oberhuber was the worthy successor of Paul J. Sachs and Agnes Mongan as a Harvard-based advocate for the study of drawings at the Fogg Art Museum. “For me, and for countless other students, curators, and collectors locally and across the United States, his radiant enthusiasm, combined with an extraordinary eye and superb scholarship, was a magnet to the world of works on paper. The multitude of devoted students he leaves behind — they include senior curators at the Uffizi, the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Gallery, the Morgan Library, Princeton, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal — testifies to his personal warmth as well as to his effectiveness as a teacher and mentor,” said William Robinson, current Maida and George Abrams Curator of Drawings at the Fogg Art Museum.

As the most prominent expert in the United States on Renaissance drawings, during the 1970s and 1980s Oberhuber was inundated with requests for help from students, scholars, collectors, dealers, and auction houses. Not only did he nurture Harvard undergraduates and graduate students, but he also served formally and informally as surrogate adviser to Ph.D. candidates from other institutions. Nearly every year he took groups of students to New York and other cities to see exhibitions and visit galleries and private collections, and he excelled at staging “teaching moments” at every stop. Ambitious collectors of drawings, including Ian Woodner, John Gaines, and John and Alice Steiner, regularly sought his advice on their acquisitions; players in the art trade called and visited him constantly. In many of his professional relationships, Oberhuber suffered fools and sharks gladly, and he never complained if they disappointed his expectations. This made him appear naive, but he acted selflessly out of genuine compassion, an irrepressible love of teaching, and to promote the interests of the Harvard University Art Museums (HUAM).

Apart from his teaching, Oberhuber had an enduring impact on the HUAM. His contacts in the art trade and with collectors contributed to his success in strengthening the Drawing Department’s holdings. Important works by Titian, Federigo Barocci, Nicolas Poussin, and Thomas Eakins entered the collection because he freely shared his expertise with the dealers who found them or the collectors who bought them. Trained as a curator in one of Europe’s greatest public collections, Oberhuber brought to the department’s acquisition goals a new ambition and breadth informed by his prior experience. He took the HUAM’s holdings in new directions with the addition of German 19th century drawings, the foundation of a strong representation of the French 17th century school, and the purchase of works by contemporary European artists, such as Anselm Kiefer, Georg Baselitz, and Enzo Cucchi.

“In person, Konrad was endearingly eccentric, with one foot in the past and the other in the future. His background, education, and some of his values were traditional Central European. On the other hand, with his health-food/vegetarian diet (not as common then as now), casual outfits, adherence to Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophy, and freedom from many conventional inhibitions, he embodied New Age before ‘New Age’ arrived,” said Robinson.