Rene d’Harnoncourt was the dynamic director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York who led the museum’s grand transformation during the 1950’s. Born to an aristocratic family in 1901, d’Harnoncourt grew up in the rich cultural milieu of fin-de-siecle Vienna, then the fine arts capital of Europe. Trained in philosophy and science, d’Harnoncourt learned to paint and draw when young, and he developed a keen interest in modern, as well as folk and native, art.
With the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after WWI, d’Harnoncourt’s family fortune was lost. Preferring to start anew and poor in a foreign land, d’Harnoncourt emigrated to Mexico in 1925, where he initially worked as a commercial illustrator and window dresser. In time, he became a respected antiques dealer who was sought out by affluent Americans including Dwight Morrow, the American Ambassador to Mexico and a well known collector and promoter of Mexican art.
In 1930, d’Harnoncourt organized the exhibition Mexican Arts, which opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and then travelled for two more years throughout the U.S. Traveling with the exhibition, d’Harnoncourt took the opportunity to explore the country and to meet and establish relationships with the staff and trustees of America’s most prestigious museums. Though he returned to Mexico at the end of the tour, in 1933 he eventually immigrated to New York where he gained prominence as a curator and professor of Art History.
At the behest of Nelson Rockefeller, d’Harnoncourt joined the staff of the Museum of Modern Art in 1944. He was appointed Museum Director in 1949, overseeing a large increase in membership and fundraising, and the first major expansion of the museum which inaugurated their new building in 1964. His greatest legacy however, was his innovative approach to exhibition curation and design which resulted in unparalleled exhibitions that cemented the MoMA’s reputation as an international force. D’Harnoncourt retired in 1968 shortly before his tragic death in a car accident on Long Island.
This meticulously rendered drawing by d’Harnoncourt reads like an allegorical tribute to his specialized interest in native and folk arts from around the globe. The female figures represent Africa, Mexico, and India- three cultures which d’Harnoncourt carefully studied and whose artifacts he exhibited with the same care and regard as he did modern art.
- Private Collection, Mexico