National Gallery Benefactor Amassed Significant Art Collection

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 26, 2009

Ruth Cole Kainen, 87, an art collector who, with her husband, was a major benefactor of the National Gallery of Art and other museums and whose well-chosen collection has formed the basis for several major exhibitions, died Sept. 13 of congestive heart failure at Sibley Memorial Hospital.

Mrs. Kainen began collecting art in the early 1960s, before she met her husband, Jacob Kainen, an artist and curator. After they were married in 1969, they amassed a significant collection of paintings, drawings, engravings and prints, dating from the 15th century to modern times. With little fanfare or publicity, Mrs. Kainen donated hundreds of artworks to the National Gallery in recent years.

"They loved everything from the Middle Ages forward," National Gallery prints and drawings curator Andrew Robison said this week in an interview. "Their taste was broad, and their quality was high."

They acquired a substantial number of drawings and prints by American abstract expressionist artists of the mid-20th century, many of whom had been Jacob Kainen's colleagues as a painter. But the Kainens were especially known for their strong holdings in German expressionist works of the early 20th century, particularly by the artist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, who lived from 1880 to 1938. It was Kirchner who, in a roundabout way, brought the couple together while they were attending a luncheon in 1968.

"We'd been seated next to one another," Mrs. Kainen told The Washington Post in 1985. "Someone mentioned Kirchner, and Jacob turned, politely, to tell me who he was. I responded, with a little annoyance, that I had a Kirchner lithograph hanging on my wall. Two days later Jacob called to ask if he could come see it. And we were on."

After their marriage, the Kainens' home in Chevy Chase became a gathering place for the Washington art world. The National Gallery drew heavily from their joint collection for a 1985 exhibition of German expressionist art, for a 2001 exhibition of 20th-century drawings and for a Kirchner retrospective in 2003.

"I went all over the world, looking at Kirchners everywhere to pick the very best examples," Robison said. "Again and again, I came up with theirs."

Ruth Cole was born Feb. 19, 1922, in Rosboro, Ark. When a local timber company for which her father worked moved to Oregon, her family went with it. Mrs. Kainen remained a major owner of the Rosboro timber and lumber company throughout her life.

She received a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Oregon in 1942 and served in the Navy WAVES during World War II. After the war, Mrs. Kainen went to Yale University to study music and received a second bachelor's degree in 1950.

She worked for Columbia Artists Management in New York in the early 1950s and lived on the West Coast for several years before coming to Washington in 1958 as a fundraiser for the National Symphony Orchestra. She volunteered with opera and ballet groups in the 1960s and worked as a freelance food and travel writer. In 1969, she published a book, "America's Christmas Heritage," with an emphasis on food customs.

Her husband, whom she married on her 47th birthday, was a New York painter before moving to Washington in the 1940s to become a curator at what is now the Smithsonian American Art Museum. He maintained friendships with such pioneering artists as Stuart Davis, Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko, all of whose works he collected.

By the time of her death, Mrs. Kainen had given 754 works of art to the National Gallery, including more than 100 by her husband, who died in 2001 at 91. The couple also donated many works to the Phillips Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, National Museum of Women in the Arts, Baltimore Museum of Art and other institutions.

"Ruth was extremely generous," Robison said. "She believed in giving while she was alive."

Survivors include two stepsons, Daniel Kainen of Vancouver, B.C., and Paul Kainen of Washington; and a brother.

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