The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Vivian Hewitt, collector of works by Black artists, dies at 102

Mrs. Vivian Hewitt in an undated portrait. (Tyrus Ortega Gaines/Harvey B. Gantt Center )
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Vivian Hewitt, a librarian who spent more than four decades acquiring, with her husband, a major collection of museum-quality works by Black artists, died May 29 at her home in Manhattan. She was 102.

Her death was announced by the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture in Charlotte, where a substantial portion of the Hewitts’ collection is housed. The cause was not disclosed.

Mrs. Hewitt and her husband, John H. Hewitt Jr., met in 1949 in Atlanta. Both were faculty members at historically Black colleges: He taught English at Morehouse College, and she was a librarian and teacher at what was then Atlanta University. They were married later the same year.

“We both had an appreciation for art going back to childhood,” Mrs. Hewitt told The Washington Post in 2000. “I loved the reproduction of Millet’s ‘The Gleaners’ that was in my home in Pittsburgh, and John grew up in New York City, with all the museums and cultural life. We were also fortunate enough to go to public school back when they still had strong art programs.”

Their collection began to take shape after they moved to New York in 1951, when there were still echoes of the Harlem Renaissance, a flowering of African American culture in the 1920s and ’30s. Mrs. Hewitt worked as a librarian for the Rockefeller Foundation, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and eventually the Council on Foreign Relations. Her husband became a medical journalist.

John Hewitt’s sister operated an art gallery in Harlem, and Mrs. Hewitt’s cousin, Eugene Grigsby, was an artist and teacher. The couple’s home on Sugar Hill in Harlem became an informal salon, and they developed friendships with artists such as Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, Hale Woodruff, Ernest Crichlow and Jonathan Green. In many cases, the Hewitts acquired the artists’ work before they became well-known.

Despite having limited means, the Hewitts began to collect prints and paintings by Henry Ossawa Tanner, who studied with Thomas Eakins in Philadelphia, settled in Paris in 1891 and became one of the first African American artists of international renown. On their travels to Haiti, the Hewitts bought art by local artists. They went to Mexico, where Washington-born artist Elizabeth Catlett — who had been part of the Harlem Renaissance — had settled.

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“It was a sacrifice,” Mrs. Hewitt told The Post. “But we just had a passion for art. We bought what we liked, instinctively, intuitively.”

The Hewitts’ artistic tastes tended toward the conservative, generally favoring representational works, including portraits, landscapes and interior scenes. They focused largely on New York-based artists and did not collect works by Black abstract painters such as Sam Gilliam or Alma Thomas.

“We bought from the heart, the things that moved us and that we liked,” Mrs. Hewitt told the Baltimore Sun in 2004. “Art is very subjective, and one brings to a painting or any other artwork something of one’s own background.”

In the late 1970s, the Hewitts began to mount occasional exhibits in their home and offered advice to others who sought to acquire art with a limited budget. They eventually amassed more than 500 items, as their collection grew into one of the country’s largest devoted to Black artists.

The Hewitts decided that they wanted to keep the core of their collection intact, instead of selling pieces individually. In 1998, they sold many of their major works to Bank of America. More than 50 of those paintings, drawings and prints were shown to the public during a two-year tour of museums around the country. The bank later donated the acquisitions to the Gantt Center, which calls the Hewitt Collection the “cornerstone” of its permanent holdings.

Vivian Ann Davidson was born Feb. 17, 1920 in New Castle, Pa. Her father was a skilled laborer and butler, and her mother had been a teacher.

Mrs. Hewitt graduated in 1943 from Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pa., then received a degree in library science a year later from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Library School. (It is now part of the University of Pittsburgh but at the time was affiliated with what is now Carnegie Mellon University.)

She became the first African American librarian in the Pittsburgh public library system before moving to Atlanta. Mrs. Hewitt held leadership positions in the Special Libraries Association and retired in the 1980s.

Her husband died in 2000. Their son, John H. Hewitt III, died in March. Survivors include two granddaughters and 10 great-grandchildren.

Mrs. Hewitt said she and her husband lived frugally, saving their money to add to their art collection.

“I told my husband, ‘Don’t give me a sweeper or a dishwasher,’ ” she said in a 2001 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “ ‘Those are practical things. If you’re going to give me anything, give me a painting.’ ”