American Council of Learned Societies

Back to American Council of Learned Societies | Sterling, Charles

Charles Sterling ( 1901-1991 )

Esteemed Louvre curator Charles Sterling was born in Warsaw in 1901, and moved to France in 1925. Although trained as a lawyer, he began studying art history with Medievalist art historian Henri Focillon in Paris. Focillon became Sterling’s mentor, and his photograph was ever present in Sterling’s study. In 1929, he was offered a position at the Louvre in the paintings department. As curator, he organized exhibitions, oversaw the painting collection, and authored numerous catalogues, including French Realist Painters of the 17th Century (1934), Rubens and His Times (1936), and French Art Masterpieces (1937). Sterling was not independently wealthy, as were many curators at the time, rather he lived off money earned from his beautifully written catalogues. He combined the roles of connoisseur and historian, not only of art but also of social, political, and economic issues, and became a brilliant writer, all the more notable since he was twenty years old by the time he learned French.

At the onset of World War II, Sterling was involved in the massive evacuations of the Louvre holdings. In 1938, artworks were removed and then quickly put back, but in September of 1939 the museum was emptied and its contents were sent to the French countryside. He traveled to various repositories in chateaux, such as Loc-Dieu and Montauban, as keeper of parts of the collection. When German law demanded that every person declare his or her racial background, fellow curator René Hughe offered Sterling fake documents identifying him as a pure Aryan. Sterling declined, arguing that he would be “ashamed to shake hands with my fellow Jews if I met them on the street,” an honorable move which forced him to give up his position at the Louvre. Having decided to escape to America, he sent a telegram to Metropolitan Museum of Art director Francis Henry Taylor through Louvre director Jacques Jaujard, who was in Spain arranging safekeeping for the Louvre’s Murillo collection. In 1942, Taylor arranged for visas and transportation for Sterling and his family, and secured him a position at the Met. During his tenure there, he catalogued the French painting collection at the museum and arranged for the purchase of French masterpieces. One of these purchased paintings was a portrait of the French humanist Guillaume Budé by Clouet, approved by the Board of Directors largely because New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia appreciated Budé’s influential role as mayor of Paris. In 1945, Sterling resumed his position as curator at the Louvre, but until 1955 spent three months a year in New York working on the Met’s catalogues.

Perhaps Sterling’s most celebrated work, La Peintuer Francaise: Les Peintres du Moyen Age (Painters of the Middle Ages) was published under the pseudonym Charles Jacques in 1941 due to his exile status. Scholars immediately uncovered the true author upon finding close similarities to passages in a book on the same subject written by Sterling in 1938. In these works, he wrote about many paintings that had been lost in an artistic oblivion for centuries – works which had either been misattributed or never studied to begin with. Sterling rediscovered the art of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century France and critiqued it with proper connoisseurship and a modern perspective in the first art historical analysis of the period. It has been said that he did for French Medieval painting what Bernard Berenson did for Italian Renaissance paintings; that is to expose little-known works of art and thoroughly study the era from all historical perspectives. Another great work on the subject was published much later in Sterling’s life, the second volume of Medieval Painting in Paris was printed just days before his death. This work combined fifty years of research along with a more scientific study of paintings from the Middle Ages.

Charles Sterling died in 1991 after a long and prolific career. The following year, the Louvre presented the exhibition Homage to Charles Sterling in his honor. Twenty-four paintings treasured and admired by him were put on display, ranging from the fifteenth-century Avignon Pieta to Matisse’s Still Life with Oranges. Sterling’s personal library and photo archive, consisting of over 12,000 books and 38,000 photographs, were left to the Louvre.