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Picasso! Calder! O’Keeffe!

The collector: Olga Hirshhorn at her Naples home in front of a painting by Robert De Niro Sr. Inspired by her late husband Joe Hirshhorn, Olga became one of the most prominent art collectors in the United States during the past half century.For most of us, art is a static experience. We stand in front of a painting or sculpture and passively wait for emotion to take hold. But for Naples resident, Olga Hirshhorn art is the gateway to a spectacular walk down memory lane. And at a spry 91 years, the widow of famed art collector Joseph Hirshhorn can look at a piece and be washed over by memories that leave other art lovers’ mouths agape.

Case in point: Pablo Picasso signed all of his works to her, “Love, your friend, Pablo.” Feel free to read that sentence again. She was, in fact, so close to Picasso that his wife, Jacqueline, sewed her a peasant dress, which he signed on a front hem. “I wore it to a Museum of Modern Art dinner at the Hotel Pierre,” says Hirshhorn. “Everyone was dressed up, and I was a peasant—in a Picasso.” Add to that stories about staying with Georgia O’Keeffe (“We walked the fields of Ghost Ranch with its beautifully colored stone outcroppings …”) or visiting Man Ray, and you can see her tastes ran greater than just looking for something to match the couch.

“Man Ray lived in Paris in this little apartment that looked like a car port,” she recalls. “The space was divided by curtains. He painted on the balcony … It was so cold! He had a horseshoe-shaped commode fitted with socks.” Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention. “It was fun to be part of the art world in the 1960s. It’s very different today,” adds Hirshhorn. “Back then it was so exciting and the artists were so good.” So good, in fact, that by 1974 she was helping her husband give his collection of more than 6,000 artworks to the nation with the opening of The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden on the National Mall. It all seems like yesterday to Olga.



Masters, friends: From top left, Bust of a Woman by Pablo Picasso; a mobile by Alexander Calder; and Series 1, No. 4 by Georgia O’Keeffe.Into the Pool

At her home in Naples, the 5-foot-tall collector steps from her bed to her outdoor pool. A longtime swimmer, she enters the rippling water daily around 7 a.m. She then drives to breakfast with friends at a local inn. She reads two newspapers but eschews computers and cell phones, content with her telephone and answering machine.

When the Hirshhorns bought a large house in Naples in 1969—Joseph disliked Northern winters—Olga recalls, “There was nothing here! Joe bought a lot of acres where buildings stand today. When The Ritz-Carlton was announced, we didn’t think it would be in Naples, 10 miles from downtown.”  Years later, she sold their house in Port Royal to build a smaller one. She designed it on a former barn she attached to a house she remodeled on Martha’s Vineyard, where she summers. That barn was inspired by the converted barn of friend and artist, Alexander Calder, and his wife, Louisa, in France’s Loire valley. “I fell in love with that barn and wanted one just like it,” says Hirshhorn. Within the hallway of that home hang two identical prints by Picasso. “On a visit after his death (in 1972), Jacqueline gave me a print of her that she also signed,” says Hirshhorn. “I had the same one Picasso had signed … I think Jacqueline committed suicide after his death because life was a vacuum without him.”


Personal portraits: Olga’s life has given her a wealth of personal memories of some of the 20th century’s greats, such as Man Ray, top, Louise Nevelson, right, and Pablo Picasso, above.Sharing Her Passion

Recently invited to join the board of directors of the Patty and Jay Baker Naples Museum of Art, Hirshhorn was also honored there last month when the International Sculpture Center, publisher of Sculpture magazine, presented her with its 2012 Patron Award. The beauty of Hirschhorn’s love affair with art is that she has always been passionate about sharing it with the next generation. In fact, over the Phil’s 30 years, Hirshhorn has donated funds yearly to transport school children there and to the museum. She is also a longtime member of the Naples Art Association and gave many of her works by area artists to its permanent collection. One of them is her portrait at age 50 by member Marjorie Wendell. Vigilant, she recently donated an extremely rare Chinese ancestral scroll painting in vermilion and gold she bought years ago in Washington, D.C., to the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer Gallery of Art in time for a year-end tax deduction. You don’t get to this point without being savvy.

Of course, Hirshhorn is perhaps best known for The Mouse House, her collection of 197 small-art objects she bought or that her husband or artist friends gave her. It contains six Picassos, six de Koonings, seven Calders, four Rays and single paintings by O’Keeffe and Dali. The Naples museum has exhibited the collection for more than four years, with a brief 2009 tour to Greenwich’s Bruce Museum. The collection has toured museums around the world, and the collector has spoken about it in India, Japan and elsewhere. “I haven’t decided where it will go permanently,” she says.

The collection is named for Hirshhorn’s 500-square-foot home in Washington, which she bought after selling the couple’s former palatial home in the capital. The tiny three-story building was once a 1900-era garage. A 2005 Architectural Digest story on the house shows pictures of her with a collection of old toasters and file folders stacked in her oven. It certainly wouldn’t have been a good fit for the monumental sculptures of Louise Nevelson, who, Hirshhorn recalls,  attended art openings dressed in three layers of beautiful, but complicated, dresses. “How do you get out of them?” Hirshhorn once asked. “I sleep in them,” replied Nevelson. 


Small spaces: Olga’s greatest personal collection is the works from her Mouse House. Although the works are on display at the Naples Museum of Art, a permanent home for them is still undetermined.Named for a Princess

Born into a blue-collar family in wealthy Greenwich, Conn., on April 26, 1920, Olga was the third child of immigrant Ukrainian Catholics Nicolas Ignatius and Barbara Zatorsky. Olga was named for a princess who brought Christianity to the Kingdom of Kiev in the eighth century and later became a saint. In her teens, she edited the Greenwich High School newspaper, won a singles tennis championship and an award for swimming. There, she fell in love with her English teacher, John Cunningham, and married him a year after her graduation. Living on John’s low salary in an old farmhouse, they had three sons: John, a sculptor; Graham, a deceased Wall Street stockbroker; and Denis, an environmentalist. To help her family, Olga started a nursery, then a day school and finally an employment agency called Services Unlimited in her home. After 23 years of marriage, the Cunninghams divorced.

“At Services Unlimited one day, I had a call from Joseph Hirshhorn, wanting to hire a chauffeur,” she recalls. “The first one I sent had liquor on his breath. Joe called complaining, and I found another driver. After several phone conversations, Joe invited me to his recently purchased mansion in Round Hill, Greenwich, and over time we became friends. He was already hunting a permanent home for his collection when we met.” The year was 1961.

For his part, Joseph Hirshhorn was born in a Latvian village, the 12th of 13 children. His father died at 44 of a heart condition. His mother, Amelia, emigrated with 10 children (two had died in Latvia) to Brooklyn and worked in a sweatshop making women’s purses. He worked as a paperboy, quit high school after six months and got a job in a brokerage. In his teens he became a stockbroker with $225 he had carefully saved and went on to make many millions in the market. He married three times and had six children—two adopted—before meeting Olga.

Inspired collecting: A self-taught collector, Joe Hirshhorn (seen below left in an undated photo with Olga) became one of the world’s foremost collectors of artists such as Willem de Kooning, left, and Thomas Eakins, below.As a young man, he began his collection with two etchings by German old master Albrecht Durer. He would later donate an astounding 35 de Koonings, 35 Calders, 28 Matisses and 37 Giacomettis to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. In the 1960s, he owned 129 paintings by Philadelphia master Thomas Eakins. He also had a large collection of fine books. “The museum was too small from the start,” Olga says. “Joe gave four times what the museum could hold. It was started under Lyndon B. Johnson, built under Richard Nixon and opened under Gerald Ford.”

At just 5-feet, 4-inches tall, Joe taught himself about art and chose it based on what his “head, heart and gut” told him. He said if he could not make a decision in a half-hour, he or the art was not right. Constantly studying the stock market, he kept several brokers busy buying and selling equities and amassed a large fortune in Canadian uranium and gold. As Olga and the movers were preparing objects for removal to the new museum, they found a cancelled check from one Canadian company for more than $45 million. Art, it seems, comes in all forms.

The younger Olga took classes in color, line, fabric design and furniture at New York University and had learned how to make her own clothes. But she knew little about abstract art when she met Joseph. “He asked me to oversee installing sculptures on the grounds at Round Hill. I didn’t know them, so he described each one to me and where he wanted installers to put them,” she recalls. “He described Henry Moore’s The King and Queen as two seated life-size bronze figures, the Calder mobile and Auguste Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais. I must have got them in the right places.”

Joe’s sense of aesthetics went beyond art. Olga put on some weight as Hirshhorn entertained her at dinners until one night he said, “If you lose 10 pounds I will marry you.” They wed later that year. “Even on his day off,” Olga recalls, “Joe would dress for business and make calls from his study.” One of her gifts to him was a shadow-box construction. She commissioned an artist to depict the façade of their dark English/French-style Round Hill mansion. “Joe was so pleased he had the artist create an impression of the back of the house,” she says, “including the sculptures on the lawn.” She still has them both.


Sculptural icons: Auguste Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais is just one of hundreds of works the Hirshhorns donated to the United States for the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.Art of the Deal

Olga confirms Hirshhorn’s art-purchasing style, described by his late biographer Barry Hyams in Hirshhorn: Medici from Brooklyn (E.P. Dutton, 1979). Entering a gallery and often recognized, Hirshhorn would begin by asking prices. Unfazed by first amounts, he would dicker, often adding three or many more works at a time. He would haggle on a fee until getting his discounted price. He said he could tell when a dealer was figuring his profit in his head by watching his eyes. But if a dealer felt defeated when a handshake consummated a deal, Hirshhorn would say on his way out, “Go to my office today. Your check will be waiting.”

Later, when the collector formed the Joseph H. Hirshhorn Foundation, art dealers would make offers half off, and he would pay $15,000 for objects valued at $30,000. In the 1960s, Hirshhorn valued his collection at $32 million, estimating how objects he had bought for $20,000 years before had risen to $60,000 or more. “How low those prices are now!” Olga says. The couple also made frequent visits to de Kooning’s studio in The Springs, Long Island, as it was being built. “It took a long time to finish the studio,” says Hirshhorn. “Instead of sending us the bills for his art, he forwarded those from his studio contractor. We quickly paid them.”

“Joe often said, ‘I’ll take that, that and that—and throw that in for Olga.’” Hyams wrote Hirshhorn could be blunt as well as irresistible: “Olga has 1,000 art pieces,” her husband said; “500 are good.” She has greatly upped her score since then.

In the 1960s, a news magazine quoted Hirshhorn on why he gave his collection to the nation. He said, “When President Johnson put his arm on my shoulder, I was a dead cookie.” Several other countries, including Canada, Great Britain and Israel, had wanted the collection, but their distance from Washington was a problem. The couple wanted to be able to visit it. “Just before the U.S. Government made its offer of a building,” Olga said, “Gov. Nelson Rockefeller had wanted the collection for the University of New York campus at Purchase, not far from our house.” 

What it is like to be able to have anything in the world? “You have to have had the one extreme to know the other,” she said. “My father was a gardener and chauffeur. At one point, I taught swimming to get by. But it was good to be poor in a wealthy town. Today, I’m being careful. I am no longer buying art. I have 15 large boxes in storage.” Only she knows what wonders they may contain. But oh, what stories must lie within.


Donald Miller of Naples has been an art and architecture critic since 1966.

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