Collection traces evolution of genre
Hevrdejs family donates to MFAH unmatched assemblage of still lifes
Houston businessman Frank Hevrdejs has always had an eye for contrasts.
During his first trip to a museum as a 10-year old in Chicago, Hevrdejs gravitated to opulent, realistic still lifes by Dutch old masters and harder-todecipher modern tabletop compositions by Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso. Those wildly different approaches to painting stayed with him.
Hevrdejs has amassed a collection of 250 American paintings in all genres, but he’s kept a keen eye on the evolution of still lifes — an extraordinary range dating from the early 19th century, when decorative flower and fruit paintings in the European tradition still held sway, to the present, when anything goes.
Sixty-seven of those works now hang at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in the exhibition
“Two Centuries of American Still-Life Painting: The Frank and Michelle Hevrdejs Collection,” which opens to the public Saturday.
Eventually, they will reside there for perpetuity. Hevrdejs pledged all of the show’s paintings to the museum Thursday night at a patron’s dinner.
A windfall for museum
The windfall includes a few masterpieces, among them James Peale’s “Still Life with Fruit,” John Frederick Peto’s “The Writer’s Table — A Precarious Moment,” Max Weber’s “Still Life with Three Jugs” and Georgia O’Keeffe’s “From Pink Shell.” Yet many of the paintings have not been shown in museums until now.
“Nowhere else in America is there a collection of still-life painting that features the range, quality and focus of (these) works,” MFAH Director Gary Tinterow said.
A co-founder of the private equity firm the Sterling Group, Hevrdejs began collecting in earnest in the 1980s. He said Seattle dealer Allan Kollar helped him seek out paintings everywhere from garages to museums that were selling works. Preeminent American art scholar William Gerdts, another longtime friend, wrote the show’s catalog and book-length essay.
While many people collect American still lifes, the Hevrdejs collection is uniquely devoted to the “entire expanse” of the genre, with room for more than the “usual suspects,” Gerdts writes.
Hevrdejs said his work colleagues nicknamed him “the planner” for his organizational skills.
“So, ‘planner guy’ figured out I want a plan to create something that’s kind of complete, as opposed to just random,” he said. “I thought we could have an interesting collection and create a survey of American still-life painting, and I think we’ve been able to accomplish that, all the way from the beginning to the end.”
Some of the works don’t fit the general perception of still lifes, including Impressionist paintings that incorporate still-life elements. Hevrdejs also wanted his collection to represent the diversity of artists, so he has purposefully sought out paintings by women, an African-American, a Native American and a Chinese-American.
He is still searching for the right work by a Mexican-American, he said.
The show was several years in the making, and after seeing it all compiled into Gerdts’ authoritative book, Hevrdejs told his wife, Michelle, he was feeling a little sad. It was like he’d reached the end of a “really long journey” he wasn’t ready to give up.
“You can keep buying,” she told him, “just don’t tell Gerdts.”
They’ve purchased four stilllife paintings since then — most recently last week, when they acquired a Chuck Close painting of a monumental sunflower.
Curator Kaylin Weber said the collection’s singular focus — “where we can look at a true arc across one genre and a period of American art history” — presents a great opportunity for Houston audiences who may be learning about this aspect of stilllife painting for the first time.
Tells a complete story
Tinterow declined to put a monetary value on the collection.
“Although many of the paintings in the Hevrdejs Collection could be sold at auction for great sums, the value to the museum is quite different,” he said. “Money alone cannot accomplish what the Hevrdejses have done — assemble a collection that represents 30 years of sleuthing, trading and refining to create a group whose whole is much greater than the parts.
“That is precisely what defines a great collection: It represents an enormous investment of time and expertise. With the Hevrdejs Collection at the MFAH, we will be able to tell a much more complete and interesting story about the history of painting in America.”
The show will travel to the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, directed by former MFAH American art curator Emily Ballew Neff, and the Tacoma Museum of Art. It’s on view in Houston through April 9.
“Two Centuries of American Still-Life Painting” represents 30 years of sleuthing by Frank and Michelle Hevrdejs. The couple are donating the works to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.