Olga Hirshhorn, widow of the founder of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, who was well known as an exuberant, energetic and enthusiastic art patron, philanthropist and collector in her own right, died Oct. 3 at her home in Naples, Fla. She was 95.
Her death, while she was under care for numerous ailments, was confirmed by her son John Cunningham, a sculptor and professor at Skidmore College in New York.
A Washington resident for many years, Mrs. Hirshhorn was the fourth wife of Joseph Hirshhorn, the businessman, financier and mining tycoon who donated his painting and sculpture collection to establish the museum that bears his name on the Mall.
At the home that the Hirshhorns shared in Greenwich, Conn., life was stimulated and enhanced by the beauty and appeal of some of the great works of art of the past 200 years.
Symbolic of the meaning of philanthropy, and of the transfer of art from private to public hands, was a visit she once made with a reporter to the sculpture garden of the Hirshhorn Museum.
She gestured in the direction of the famous statue of the French novelist Honoré de Balzac by the celebrated French sculptor Auguste Rodin. Intended to convey character and personality rather than mere physical likeness, it is regarded as a landmark in the history of sculpture.
“This used to stand at the top of our driveway in Greenwich,” Mrs. Hirshhorn said.
On another occasion, she pointed to a bust of Madame Renoir, wife of the painter. “That was in our dining room,” she said.
As a wealthy collector’s wife, Mrs. Hirshhorn met and befriended some of the major figures of 20th-century art, including Pablo Picasso, Willem de Kooning and Georgia O’Keeffe.
Picasso signed one of his works “To Olga with love.” De Kooning created something for her and signed it “Love, Bill.” Picasso’s wife, Jacqueline, designed a dress for her, and the artist signed it.
The child of a blue-collar couple, Mrs. Hirshhorn through her marriage and her personal charm expanded her circle of acquaintances far beyond what may once have seemed possible. “Joe brought me into a very exciting world,” she once said.
Once, her son recalled, as he struggled to support a young family while on the lower rungs of the academic ladder, he got a call from his mother, whose life existed on another plane. “Hi,” she greeted her son. “I’m having lunch with the queen of England.”
She was known nevertheless as unpretentious. She was also a serious and vigorous amateur athlete.
Her enduring interest in art began in her early days with Joseph Hirshhorn.
“I had to choose whether to learn about art or finance or mining,” she said, “and I chose art.”
As she developed her artistic interests, Mrs. Hirshhorn acquired many pieces on her own.
Olga Zatorsky was born April 26, 1920, in Greenwich, the daughter of a chauffeur and a homemaker, both immigrants from Eastern Europe. From a young age, she was, in many ways, an independent woman.
At 18, she married one of her teachers, John Cunningham, at Greenwich (Conn.) High School. She had three children by age 25, and she went into business in her home town to help support them.
A learn-to-swim group for toddlers led to a day camp, then a nursery school, a baby-sitting service and, finally, an employment agency called Services Unlimited. Her agency provided domestic help for the wealthy residents who lived in Greenwich’s many mansions. Through it, she met Hirshhorn.
“He said he was attracted to me by my voice, by my efficiency, by the fact that I ran my own business, that I’d created it,” she told The Washington Post in 1982.
She and her first husband divorced in 1962. After a period in which they charmed and impressed each other, Hirshhorn issued a proposal.“Lose 10 pounds,” he said, “and I’ll marry you.”
The challenge was easily met, and they were wed.
They seemed particularly well-matched. “We had such fun,” she said. She converted to Judaism to be buried alongside him.
The couple maintained a home in Washington for many years, and the force of her gregarious personality was said to have made her, and them, many friends. In addition to Naples and Washington, she also spent long periods on Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.
Hirshhorn died in her arms in 1981, as they were returning from a performance at the Kennedy Center. She tried CPR, but it failed.
“My life was shattered at that moment,” Mrs. Hirshhorn said later.
But she carried on the traditions of collecting and philanthropy begun during her marriage; she had been on the Hirshhorn’s board, served on the board of the Corcoran School of Art, and supported other museum projects, art associations and women’s groups. She also was described as one of Washington’s best-known art collectors.
After Joseph Hirshhorn’s death, she maintained a small house in Washington’s Embassy Row area.
It was so diminutive that she dubbed it the “mouse house,” but it contained a substantial and eclectic collection of art, often acquired at relatively low cost. “A lot of people think you have to be wealthy to collect art,” she once said. “I paid artists a hundred dollars a month for pieces.”
At least one home adornment was said to have come from the Georgetown Flea Market, with a coin toss used to settle the price. Her collection impressed one writer as a “creative hodgepodge,” ranging from a Calder bronze to a Balinese betel nut cracker.
In 1995, a show of works from her collection had a considerable effect on an art writer for The Post.
“You can’t look at this show without being impressed by the collector’s voracious eye and refreshingly open approach,” Jo Ann Lewis wrote. “She likes what she likes, connoisseurship be damned.”
Her son said her collection found a permanent home at the Baker Museum in Naples.
It was sometimes explained that the eclectic aggregation, symbolic of her spirit, might have been overwhelmed in the museum on the Mall.
A third marriage, to Robert W. Dudley, ended soon afterward with his death. In addition to her son John Cunningham, survivors include another son, Denis Cunningham, several grandchildren and one great-grandchild. According to a relative, a third son preceded Mrs. Hirshhorn in death.