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Joseph J. Rishel, legendary PMA curator of European art, dies at 80

Mr. Rishel, married to late PMA director Anne d'Harnoncourt, was known for his encyclopedic knowledge of the field, his unflagging support of colleagues, his humor, and many spectacular exhibitions.

Joseph Rishel checking whether a Cézanne work hangs properly in a 2009 exhibit.
Joseph Rishel checking whether a Cézanne work hangs properly in a 2009 exhibit.Read moreCLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

Joseph J. Rishel, the genial longtime curator of European art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where his elliptical, shaggily unwinding anecdotes, indefatigable curatorial efforts, and unwavering support of colleagues made him a beloved legend, died Thursday of complications from Parkinson’s disease. He was 80.

Mr. Rishel joined the Art Museum as a curator of European art in 1971 and was followed the next year by his new bride, Anne d’Harnoncourt, hired as a curator of 20th-century art. Before long, the couple — she: tall, commanding, detail-oriented; he: not nearly as tall, gregarious, a welcoming polymath — became the face of the PMA. She served as museum director until her death in 2008 and he handled pre-20th century European art, often zeroing in on overlooked fields and subjects.

Mr. Rishel used the museum’s deep, historical collection to launch his many memorable exhibitions — from a huge multifaceted survey, “Second Empire: Art in France under Napoleon III” in 1978, through “Cézanne” (1996), and on to catholic surveys like “Art in Rome in the 18th Century (2000),” and “The Arts in Latin America, 1492-1820” (2006).

His nearly half-century tenure had an incalculable impact on the prominence of the museum as an art institution and as a force on Philadelphia’s civic landscape. He retired in 2016 as curator of European painting and sculpture before 1900, the John G. Johnson Collection, and the Rodin Museum, assuming the title of curator emeritus until his death.

“He will certainly be remembered as one of the great curators in the history of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, both for the length of his tenure, and all that he accomplished during the 40-plus years that he worked at the museum,” said Timothy Rub, museum director and chief executive. Rub called Mr. Rishel “one of the great makers of exhibitions in our history.”

In Rub’s view, Rishel had a gift for taking difficult or expansive topics and making them accessible and interesting to anyone, no specialized knowledge required.

This curatorial gift worked its magic countless times, Rub said — on an exhibition surveying “this great span of Latin American art from the late 15th to the early 19th centuries in South America and Central America," as well as on the singular career of Paul Cézanne, which Mr. Rishel "brought together and surveyed in a magisterial way.”

In a profession that often rewards singularity, Mr. Rishel was the most collegial of curators. He relished bringing in colleagues and then turning them loose.

“He absolutely loved working with other people and really thrived on having that exchange of ideas,” said Jennifer Thompson, who succeeded Mr. Rishel when he retired from the museum. "These exhibitions were always these large collaborative projects involving curators and scholars quite literally from around the world.

“There’s no question that for anyone who had the privilege to work on a project with him, that he was an extraordinarily generous collaborator because in so many cases he was the senior curator in the room, but everyone’s contribution was valued.”

When Mr. Rishel retired from the museum in 2016, many of his past collaborators and colleagues acknowledged how instrumental he had been in inspiring or launching their careers — Colin Bailey, director of the Morgan Library and Museum in New York, Christopher Riopelle, curator of post-1800 paintings at the the National Gallery in London, and Katherine Crawford Luber, director and president of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, among them.

Peter Sutton, former director of the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Conn., worked with Mr. Rishel at the PMA in the early 1980s and called him a “great inspiration.”

“I truly regarded Joe as a mentor, and he was very funny,” Sutton recalled at the time of Mr. Rishel’s retirement. “I couldn’t get anything done I laughed so much. Anne finally moved me to another office. Joe told such funny stories. ... But he took a lot of us under his wing for a while and taught us how to be a curator. I owe a huge debt to Joe. He was the model curator.”

Elizabeth Cropper, dean of the National Gallery of Art’s Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts and a friend of Mr. Rishel for half a century, characterized him as almost congenitally inclusive.

“He wanted everybody to share,” she said. “And he wanted everybody to share in his enthusiasm, really, for the collections and the history of art. And you know, he was a great team builder. He wanted to bring everybody along together.”

Mr. Rishel spent a year at the center in 2010-2011 as Samuel H. Kress professor.

“He could learn anything,” said Cropper. “If he decided he was going to sit down and master a field, he would master it. Things that would take people years of graduate school to get to know deeply, he would master it, and he knew who to go to. He was as much a student as the students. That’s why I don’t like this word mentor because he was a great student, he was always learning new things.”

Mr. Rishel grew up in Phelps, in upstate New York, and attended Hobart and William Smith Colleges, where in 1961, he participated in the G.E. College Bowl television and radio show with other Hobart and William Smith students. The Hobart team went undefeated, winning the national championship.

He attended graduate school at the University of Chicago, and began working as a curator at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he met his future wife. Within a year they were both Philadelphia-bound.

Mr. Rishel’s first big splash at the PMA came with his 1978 exhibition exploring the art of the Second Empire. But he is most well known for his expansive 1996 Paul Cézanne exhibition.

The exhibition marked an awakening for the museum and for the city itself and remains the most well-attended exhibition in PMA history. Nothing before it showed so clearly the power of art and culture to drive civic life and tourism.

He also supervised the reinstallation of the museum’s European galleries in 1994, for the first time allowing the city-owned collection of John G. Johnson to be integrated with the museum’s own holdings.

And he was also instrumental in bringing in works collected by his friends Henry McIlhenny and Helen Tyson Madeira, boosting the museum’s Cézanne holdings.

Rishel returned to Cézanne several times in his exhibitions over the years, noting at the time of “Cézanne and Beyond” in 2009 that “Cézanne is like a fine ham. You can keep slicing and slicing and slicing.”

It is that wry sense of humor that engaged his many colleagues and friends. At the time of Mr. Rishel’s retirement, PMA photography curator Peter Barberie described him as “really gregarious.”

"I think of him as a true museum guy. He is all about museums. … He is interested in what everybody is doing. He’s very supportive and very broad-minded about what can happen in a museum.

“People just adore him.”

Mr. Rishel is survived by a sister and two brothers.

Donations may be made in his memory to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The museum said they haven’t scheduled a memorial because of the pandemic.