William Suhr--for Thursday

William Suhr, paintings restorer from Berlin, and “German Exile”

Alison Stewart


Below an overview of materials you might wish to look at before my presentation Thurs. and my suggestions for quick viewing.  Questions link Suhr with our seminar discussions.  I may add more about specific research areas of mine during my presentation.


Suhr lived in Berlin before he came to Detroit in the1930s to work in the museum. Suhr was trained as a painter, then a paintingrestorer in Berlin, and he made important contacts there  in the art world (galleries, museums)that sustained him throughout his life. My posted article makes known Suhr’s personal and professionalpapers.  The audio interview ofSuhr allows us to hear Suhr speak (with a German accent). Please take a fast“look” at the audio interview and the illustrations, if not my article, beforeour seminar meets Thurs.


Overview of  materials posted (to clarify what yousee there)


-text    (published1981)  &

-audio (unpublished 1977, in 2 parts: 46 min., 25 min.) from the Getty



-the text to be published in the Bulletin of the Visual Resources Association next month,

-illustrations (in one convenient file together or as separate jpeg imagesposted separately.)


Suggestions for fastviewing

- look at  the 2ndposted section titled “William Suhr Materials” and listen briefly to the audiointerview

 (a minute or two forSuhr’s accent and manner. Interview also posted as published text.)


- and article illustrations in same web section showing Suhr and theBruegel painting in Detroit

(If you can enlarge the images to 150-200%, the images should bereadable.  If not, there areindividual jpegs for individual viewing under the first section, “WilliamSuhr  essay pictures”)


-Time permitting, take a look at my article text., esp. 3-14 Suhr;15-20 on Bruegel & Suhr’s work on the painting.


Questions to consider

1. If there were, as David and others in our seminar haveargued, a multiplicity of German exile cultures and exile views, can we alsoinclude under “German Exiles” those who lived in Germany and were culturallyGerman, but who held a passport from another country?   Can one be both American and a German exile?

2.  How importantis language for cultural identity? Suhr may have been American, but his German accent remained thickthroughout his life, as the interview (1977) shows when Suhr  was about 80 years old.  Some in the U.S. art world thought Suhrwas German.  Do we have recordingsof Erika or Thomas Mann? How do they sound?  And is voice important?

3. Just as exiles experienced new climates when leaving thehomeland, the paintings Suhr treated can also be seen as exiled to the heat andhumidity of the New World, thus paint moved and blistered, and needed to bereattached to the wooden panel that supported it before the advent of airconditioning (my article 18). Whether European paintings or exiles, movement across the Ocean causedgeographic dislocation.  

4. When Suhr cleaned the Detroit Bruegel painting, andremoved what has been called “modesty” overpainting and old, dark varnish, he returned it to its original appearance. Thechange of taste away from the prominent codpieces in the foreground figuresappears to have caused the overpainting. When did such overpainting occur? Victorian modesty is certainly acandidate, but paintings were altered through overpainting back throughBruegel’s time, and even earlier. Do you know of other examples of changing taste that resulted in a work(literature, play, music, art, etc.) that was altered to conform to more modesttaste? 

5. Suhr had difficulty with the authorities concerning hisresident status going back to 1917 when he was thought to be German thus theauthorities wanted to draft him into the German army (my article 4-5). Later inthe U.S. Suhr continued to have problems getting passports so he could travelfreely without fear of being viewed as a German or Nazi.  

6. From approximately 1917-1928 Suhr became established inthe Berlin art world. Exactly how important was Berlin culturally andartistically at the time?

7. Similarly how important was the London art market in 1930when Bruegel’s Wedding Dance paintingwas purchased for the Detroit museum by director Wilhelm Valentiner soon afterthe stock market crash of 1929? Thomas Sulley (unwell, died later that year) was the gallery owner whohad purchased the painting from an English country house.  It appears that Europe and Berlin wereintegrally linked to London and the U.S. economically, resulting in aworld-wide financial system & art market. Valentiner had less than onemonth to finalize the painting’s purchase, which he did. Importance of Londonart market?  Did Valentiner get agood deal?

8. Suhr’s political pronouncements on Germany are few, butthey are critical in their own way (article 11-12).  He refuses to go to Germany but will meet his sister inStrasbourg in 1933.  And he wroteaffidavits in support of “Germans” emigrating to the U.S. (see my article 10)

9. Suhr knew Max J. Friedländer and Jakob Rosenberg,two seminal art historians for the study of Northern Renaissance painting andprints.  Friedländer fled Berlinfor Amsterdam and Rosenberg went to Harvard as director of the Fogg Museum’sprint collection and as art history professor. And Suhr worked with Dr.Schaeffer in New York.  Dr.Schaeffer refers to Hanns and Kate Schaeffer who were Berlin art dealersbeginning 1925 and who moved to New York in 1935 where they became what hasbeen called a “rallying point for émigré scholars and musicians includingWolfgang Stechow, Julius Held, Rudolf Wittkower, and others.”  Stechow, Held, and Wittkower becameprofessors of Renaissance and Baroque art at Oberlin & Barnard Colleges andColumbia University.  Suhr’s circlebroadens around a Berliner.

10. Suhr claimed as his first pupil of conservation HelmetRuhemann, the head conservator at Berlin’s Kaiser Friedrich Museum from 1928-33who then emigrated to London where he worked as a consultant restorer at theNational Gallery of Art.  Noteagain London’s importance. 

11. Suhr’s first wife named Emma, who came over on the boatwith him in January 1928, appears periodically in Suhr’s correspondence, but nopictures or passports exist in the Suhr archives at the Getty, nor can I find adeath or divorce date for her. She has essentially disappeared.  Suhr’s widow (2nd wife) inMt. Kisco NY, Henriette Granville Suhr, donated the Suhr papers to the Getty.How often does the donor of such papers comb through to create the picture ofthe “man” the donor/wife wishes to present?

Discussion materials on William Suhr.doc31 KB