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Finding aid for the William Suhr papers, 1846-2003, (bulk 1928-1982)
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Collection Details
Table of contents What's This?
  • Descriptive Summary
  • Biographical/Historical Note
  • Administrative Information
  • Related Material
  • Separated Material
  • Scope and Content of Collection
  • Indexing Terms

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: William Suhr papers
    Date (inclusive): 1846-2003 (bulk 1927-1982)
    Number: 870697
    Creator/Collector: Suhr, William, 1896-1984
    Physical Description: 70.0 linear feet
    The Getty Research Institute
    Special Collections
    1200 Getty Center Drive, Suite 1100
    Los Angeles, California, 90049-1688
    (310) 440-7390
    Abstract: An American paintings conservator trained in Berlin, William Suhr worked under Wilhelm Reinhold Valentiner at the Detroit Institute of Arts beginning in 1927, and was the conservator of the Frick Collection from 1935 to 1977. He also maintained private clients including individuals and major American museums in Cleveland, New York, Detroit, San Francisco, Chicago, and St. Louis. After World War II he worked closely with clients active in the New York art market, particularly the dealer Rosenberg and Stiebel. The bulk of the collection is comprised of photographs of paintings treated by Suhr, along with his treatment notes. The collection also contains business papers, including correspondence, articles about Suhr, personal papers, and documentation of Suhr's own artwork.
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    Language: Collection material is in English

    Biographical/Historical Note

    William Suhr was born in Kreutzberg, Germany on March 31, 1896. His parents were U.S. citizens; his paternal grandfather had emmigrated to the United States from Germany in 1850. During his twenties Suhr's father went to Vienna seeking treatment for incipient deafness and to pursue his acting career. When he became completely deaf he gave up acting and stayed on in Germany. As a youth, Suhr acted in the same theatrical company as his mother. When he showed artistic promise as a teenager, he was apprenticed to a stonemason for three years. He then studied painting at the Royal Art Academy in Berlin. It was in Berlin, at the age of 20, that he met the art historian Max Deri, who introduced him to the restoration of painting. At that time there were no schools for restoration; it was a family business and methods were kept secret. Deri gave Suhr a panel to restore along with some advice on how to do it. Soon Suhr was very active as a restorer in Berlin, where the art historian Wilhelm Reinhold Valentiner noticed him in the early 1920's. Valentiner became Director of the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1924. In 1927 Suhr accepted his offer of the job of restorer of paintings. The letter with this offer is in the archive.
    During the Great Depression, the Detroit Institute of Arts closed temporarily. During this time the staff was dispersed and Walter Heil, Curator of European Art, took the position of Director of the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco in 1933. His association with Heil took Suhr to San Francisco, which he liked very much. In addition to his restoration work on panel paintings in San Francisco, Suhr worked on the Brangwyn murals at the Veterans' Auditorium. In 1936 he also taught a summer course at Mills College titled The Technique, Restoration and Preservation of Paintings, where he met and befriended the artist Lyonel Feininger.
    By the early 1930's Suhr's expertise in the technique of canvas and panel transfers was sought internationally. This was an especially important treatment in the time before it was possible to stabilize temperature and humidity in buildings. In 1933 Suhr established his studio in New York. In 1935, Mortimer Clapp, director of the Frick Collection, asked Suhr to become the permanent conservator. He also conserved paintings for art institutions in Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, New York, Saint Louis, San Francisco, and Toledo, and for private collectors and for the art trade. In 1939, Suhr was a conservation consultant for "Masterpieces of Art," shown at the New York World's Fair. Later in his carreer he worked extensively on 18th century American paintings for the Kennedy Galleries in New York.
    Suhr came to painting conservation at a pivotal time, when there were great paintings on the market and before museums had their own trained conservationists. Some of the notable paintings that Suhr worked on in the course of his career include St. George by Mantegna (Galleria dell'Accademia), which Suhr saved from severe blistering during the exhibition Masterpieces of Italian Art lent by the Royal Italian Government November 18, 1939 to January 9, 1940, at the Art Institute of Chicago, and which he considered one of the great restorations of his career; St. Jerome in his Study, now attributed to the Jan van Eyck workshop (Detroit Institute of Arts), which was reattributed to Jan van Eyck when Suhr found that the portions thought to be by a second artist (Petrus Christus) had been overpainted; The Polish Rider by Rembrandt (Frick Collection), of which the bottom four inches that had been destroyed by fire and clumsily repainted were repainted by Suhr, bringing the horse's hooves back into perspective; and the Annunciation Triptych (or Merode Altarpiece) by Robert Campin (Cloisters Museum), which is perhaps the most important painting that Suhr worked on. Particularly noted for his work on Rembrandt paintings, Suhr was said to have held more Rembrandts in his hands than anyone since Rembrandt.
    As Suhr states in "The Restoration of the Merode Altarpiece," published in The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, his work was guided by the belief that "[r]estorations should preserve the original and attenuate losses in a manner that will permit the observer's eye to pass over gaps in the paint film without distress."
    Suhr was a traveler and mountain climber. He traveled in Europe, North Africa, and North America. He and his wife, Henriette Suhr, created an extensive garden on thirteen acres at their home, Rocky Hills, in Mt. Kisco, New York, which will be open to the public in the future. He was also a painter, working mostly in watercolor, in the course of his travels.
    Biographical writings about Suhr can be found in the archive.

    Administrative Information


    Open for use by qualified researchers.

    Publication Rights

    Preferred Citation

    William Suhr papers, 1846-2003, bulk 1928-1982, Research Library, The Getty Research Institute, Accession no. 870697.

    Acquisition Information

    Acquired from Henriette Suhr.

    Processing History

    The conservation photographs, treatment reports and negatives were acquired in 1987. Further papers were acquired in 1990 and 2005. Several persons processed this collection over the years. Copy negatives have been made to preserve the information on deteriorating original negatives. Research photographs (which the collection contained in addition to photographs documenting Suhr's conservation) were interfiled into the Paintings Core Collection of the Photo Study Collection. Some conservation photographs that had been interfiled into the Paintings Core Collection were re-integrated into the archival collection in 2005-2006 by Jan Bender. Final processing of the collection was completed by Martha Steele and Jan Bender in 2005-2006.

    Related Material

    Research photographs of paintings from the William Suhr papers are conserved in the Paintings Core Collection of the Photo Study Collection of the Getty Research Institute.
    Suhr's treatment reports for paintings restored for the Frick Collection are held by the Frick Collection.
    An oral biography of William Suhr is conserved in the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation (FAIC) Archive, housed at the Winterthur Museum (see also box C1 for a copy of the audio tape and box 123, folder 4-5 for a transcript of this interview).
    William Suhr letters 1927-1959, located at the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

    Separated Material

    Barnes, Albert C., The art in painting (1925), transferred to the Getty Research Library.

    Scope and Content of Collection

    This collection provides comprehensive documentation of Suhr's achievements and activities as a painting conservator. The first series, conservation photographs and treatment notes, documents Suhr's work from 1927, when he came to the United States as conservator for the Detroit Institute of Arts, to the end of his career when he closed his New York studio in 1977. The materials consist of photographs taken of the paintings, often before and after treatment, and treatment notes written by Suhr. Negatives for much of the photography are also part of this series.
    There is ample further documention of Suhr's restoration activity in the correspondence files in the business papers series. In addition, account ledgers, goods received receipts, date books, photograph logs and Suhr's address book all provide further insight into Suhr's studio practices. The extensive Kennedy Gallery memorandi document Suhr's work for an important gallery of American painting. Photographs of Suhr's studios and professional associates provide further documentation of his career. And the printed materials series provides a record of published articles about Suhr and his work.
    Personal papers provide information about Suhr's family, his efforts to formalize his immigration status in the United States, and his activities during World War II. Having grown up in Germany, the child of American parents, Suhr understood the extreme dangers of the time and wrote letters to United States government officials to inform them about what was happening in Germany during the war. He also tried to help several Germans immigrate to the United States. This series also documents some of Suhr's travels. A final series documents Suhr's activity as a painter and designer with inventories, photographs and transparencies.
    The conservation photographs and treatment notes are fairly comprehensive. The other portions of the collection are representative but not complete.
    Suhr can be seen and heard in a public relations film made for the Detroit Institute of Arts and a tape-recorded interview conducted in 1977.

    Arrangement note

    Arranged in four series: Series I. Conservation photographs and negatives, treatment notes and clippings, 1927-1977; Series II. Business and professional papers, 1915-2003; Series III. Personal papers, 1846-1995; Series IV. Art Work, 1929-1984.

    Indexing Terms

    Subjects - Names

    Campin, Robert, d. 1444
    Dalì , Salvador, 1904-1989
    Eyck, Jan van, 1390-1440, workshop
    Heinemann, Rudolf J.
    James, Edward Frank Willis, 1907-1984
    Mondschein, A. F.
    Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 1606-1669
    Rivera, Diego, 1886-1957
    Thyssen-Bornemisza, Heinrich, Baron
    Turner, J. M. W. (Joseph Mallord William), 1775-1851

    Subjects - Corporate Bodies

    Art Institute of Chicago (Masterpieces of Italian art).
    Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies
    Detroit Institute of Arts
    Frick Collection
    New York World's Fair (1939-1940)
    Rosenberg & Stiebel

    Subjects - Topics

    Art restorers--United States
    Art--Private collections
    Painting--Conservation and restoration--United States

    Subjects - Titles

    Juno Merode altarpiece Polish Rider Rockets and blue lights Saint Jerome in his study

    Genres and Forms of Material

    Audiotapes--20th century
    Color slides--United States--20th century
    Gelatin silver prints--United States--20th century
    Motion pictures (visual works)
    Negatives--United States--20th century


    Barnes Foundation
    Cleveland Museum of Art
    Detroit Institute of Arts
    Feininger, Lyonel, 1871-1956
    Forbes, Edward W. (Edward Waldo), 1873-1969
    Frick Collection
    Gerson, H. (Horst)
    Gettens, Rutherford J. (Rutherford John)
    Heinemann, Rudolf J.
    James, Edward Frank Willis, 1907-1984
    Kennedy Galleries
    M.H. De Young Memorial Museum
    Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, N.Y.)
    Mondschein, A. F.
    Munhall, Edgar
    Richardson, Edgar Preston, 1902-1985
    Rockefeller, John D., (John Davison), 1874-1960
    Stoner, Joyce Hill
    Stout, George L. (George Leslie)
    Thyssen-Bornemisza, Heinrich, Baron
    Toledo Museum of Art
    Valentiner, Wilhelm Reinhold, 1880-1958