Dario Rappaport, Portraits of Kay and Velma Kimbell, 1935, oil on canvas.
Kay and Velma Kimbell

The Vision of the Founders

The Kimbell Art Museum officially opened on October 4, 1972. The Kimbell Art Foundation, which owns and operates the Museum, had been established in 1936 by Kay and Velma Kimbell, together with Kay’s sister and her husband, Dr. and Mrs. Coleman Carter. Early on, the Foundation collected mostly British and French portraits of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By the time Mr. Kimbell died in April 1964, the collection had grown to 260 paintings and 86 other works of art, including such singular paintings as Hals’s Rommel-Pot Player, Gainsborough’s Portrait of a Woman, Vigée Le Brun’s Self-Portrait, and Leighton’s Portrait of May Sartoris. Motivated by his wish “to encourage art in Fort Worth and Texas,” Mr. Kimbell left his estate to the Foundation, charging it with the creation of a museum. Mr. Kimbell had made clear his desire that the future museum be “of the first class,” and to further that aim, within a week of his death, his widow, Velma, contributed her share of the community property to the Foundation.

 

With the appointment in 1965 of Richard F. Brown, then director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, as the Museum’s first director, the Foundation began planning for the future museum and development of the collection, both of which would fulfill the aspirations of Mr. Kimbell. To that end, under the leadership of its President, Mr. A. L. Scott, and in consultation with Ric Brown, the nine-member Board of Directors of the Foundation—consisting of Mrs. Kimbell; Dr. Carter; his daughter and her husband, Mr. and Mrs. Ben J. Fortson; Mr. C. Binkley Smith; Mr. P. A. Norris, Jr.; Mr. J. C. Pace, Jr.; and attorney Mr. Benjamin L. Bird—adopted a policy statement for the future museum in June 1966, outlining its purpose, scope, and program, among other things. That statement remains to this day the operative guide for the Museum. In accordance with that policy, the Foundation acquires and retains works of so-called “definitive excellence”—works that may be said to define an artist or type regardless of medium, period, or school of origin. The aim of the Kimbell is not historical completeness but the acquisition of individual objects of “the highest possible aesthetic quality” as determined by condition, rarity, importance, suitability, and communicative powers. The rationale is that a single work of outstanding merit and significance is more effective as an educational tool than a larger number of representative example

 

Two aspects of the 1966 policy in particular would have the greatest impact on changing the Kimbell collection: an expansion of vision to encompass world history and a new focus on building through acquisition and refinement a small collection of key objects of surpassing quality. The Kimbell collection today consists of about 350 works that not only epitomize their periods and movements but also touch individual high points of aesthetic beauty and historical importance.

A Collection of Masterpieces

Acquisitions of the first decade (1965–75) included several works that today rank among the treasures of the collection: Monet’s Point de la Hève at Low Tide; Bellini’s Christ Blessing; an eighth-century Maya stone panel depicting the Presentation of Captives; and Picasso’s classic Cubist painting of 1911, Man with a Pipe. A pre-Angkor-period bronze Bodhisattva Maitreya from Prakonchai, Thailand, was the first acquisition made during Brown’s tenure and the first work of Asian art to enter the collection.

In 1975, Mrs. Ben J. Fortson, beloved niece of Kay Kimbell, was appointed President of the Foundation’s Board of Directors—a leadership role many assumed she would one day have when she was elected to the Foundation Board at the age of twenty-one in 1956. Mrs. Fortson served in that position until 2017, when her daughter, Mrs. Mitchell Wynne, assumed the role of President while Mrs. Fortson retained the title of Chairman. About this time, all of the various businesses of the Kimbell estate were finally converted to income-producing assets by the executors, all of which were also Foundation Directors, providing critical funding to the Foundation for acquisitions. That funding made it possible to add on a regular basis such important works as Duccio’s Raising of Lazarus, El Greco’s Portrait of Dr. Francisco de Pisa, Rubens’s Equestrian Portrait of the Duke of Buckingham, and Cézanne’s Man in a Blue Smock. The Foundation acquired the latter at auction in 1980, after Ric Brown’s unexpected death in the previous year, and designated the painting as a memorial to Brown in recognition of his outstanding service to the Foundation and the community.

Edmund P. (Ted) Pillsbury succeeded Brown as the Museum’s director. During Pillsbury’s tenure (1980–98), nearly 150 works were added to the collection. Among them were La Tour’s Cheat with the Ace of Clubs, which was being researched as a potential acquisition at the time of Ric Brown’s death; its influential Italian antecedent, Caravaggio’s long-lost Cardsharps; an expressive and realistic early work by Carracci, The Butcher’s Shop; a late subject picture by David, The Anger of Achilles; a rare full-length portrait by Velázquez, Don Pedro de Barberana; Picasso’s bold and powerful Nude Combing Her Hair; a major Cézanne landscape, Maison Maria with a View of Château Noir; Caillebotte’s Impressionist urban landscape On the Pont de l’Europe; Friedrich’s Mountain Peak with Drifting Clouds, the first of his works to enter a public collection outside Europe; a rare genre scene by the Spanish master Murillo, Four Figures on a Step; a New Kingdom Egyptian masterpiece, Kneeling Statue of Senenmut; a jewel by Fra Angelico, Saint James Freeing Hermogenes; the meticulously painted Interior of the Buurkerk, Utrecht by the Netherlandish painter Saenredam; Matisse’s late-period L’Asie; Mondrian’s modernist masterpiece Abstraction; and Monet’s expressive Weeping Willow. During this time, the Kimbell’s Asian, African, and Ancient American collections were also greatly enhanced by masterworks such as a Japanese Shaka Buddha by the master sculptor Kaikei; an incised Maya Conch Shell Trumpet; the sensuous Chinese Tang-period Bodhisattva Torso; a striking life-size Pre-Angkor stone image of the Hindu god Harihara from Cambodia; and an exquisite terracotta Head, Possibly a King from the Ife culture of Nigeria.

Under the directorship of Timothy Potts, from 1998 to 2007, the diversity of the collection was expanded with works such as an ancient Greek Red-Figure Cup Showing the Death of Pentheus by the Douris painter; Raeburn’s Allen Brothers, a nod to the genesis of the Foundation’s collection of British portraiture; an inlaid figurine of a Standing Ruler from the Wari culture of Peru, the first South American work to enter the collection; Bernini’s striking Modello for the Fountain of the Moor; a masterwork by Lucas Cranach the Elder, The Judgment of Paris; and a rare eighth-century Japanese dry lacquer Gigaku Mask.

During the tenure of Eric M. Lee, director since 2009, the Kimbell has further enriched the collection with the acquisition of Michelangelo’s Torment of Saint Anthony, the artist’s first known painting, believed to have been executed when he was twelve or thirteen years old; Guercino’s tender and majestic Christ and the Woman of Samaria; Poussin’s stately Sacrament of Ordination (Christ Presenting the Keys to Saint Peter), from the artist’s first series of the Seven Sacraments, which is among the most celebrated groups of paintings in the history of art; two rare Maya Palenque-style ceramic censer stands, Censer Stand with the Head of the Jaguar God of the Underworld and Censer Stand with the Head of a Supernatural Being with a Kan Cross; Ruisdael’s Edge of a Forest with a Grainfield, an exceptional work by one of the leading painters of the Dutch landscape tradition in the seventeenth century; an important and rare sculpture by Modigliani, given in honor of Ted and Lucile Weiner by their daughter Gwendolyn; and Bonnard’s expansive, light-filled Landscape at Le Cannet.

Special Exhibitions

Equally important in the development of the Kimbell as a major national museum has been its initiation of highly acclaimed international loan exhibitions accompanied by Kimbell-produced publications and nationally attended symposia, starting in 1982 with a retrospective devoted to Vigée Le Brun and later including retrospectives devoted to Poussin (the first exhibition of the artist held in America), Ribera, Tiepolo, Jacopo Bassano, Ludovico Carracci, and Matisse, as well as timely surveys of 17th-century Spanish still-life painting, French mythological painting of the 18th century, and Japanese Buddhist sculpture.

 

Other major exhibitions originated or co-organized by the Kimbell include The Blood of Kings: A New Interpretation of Maya Art (1986), Georges de La Tour and His World (1996), Monet and the Mediterranean (1997), Renoir Portraits (1998), Matisse and Picasso: A Gentle Rivalry (1999), Stubbs and the Horse (2004), Gauguin and Impressionism (2005), Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art (2007), Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome (2011), Bernini: Sculpting in Clay (2013), Faces of Impressionism: Portraits from the Musée d'Orsay (2014), The Brothers Le Nain (2016), and Monet: The Early Years (2016).

 

The Museum has also played host to major traveling exhibitions, beginning in 1973 with Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Paintings from the U.S.S.R., which marked the first time these works had traveled outside the Soviet Union, and including The Great Bronze Age of China (1980), Cézanne to Matisse: Great French Paintings from the Barnes Collection (1994), The Path to Enlightenment: Masterpieces of Asian Sculpture from the Musée Guimet (1996), Hatshepsut: From Queen to Pharaoh (2006), The Impressionists: Master Paintings from the Art Institute of Chicago (2008), Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea (2010), The Age of Impressionism: Great French Paintings from the Clark (2012), The Age of Picasso and Matisse: Modern Masters from the Art Institute of Chicago (2013), and Botticelli to Braque: Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Scotland (2015).