Ellen Gates D’Oench

By Andrew Szegedy-Maszak, Department of Classical Studies

ELLEN GATES D’OENCH—known to everyone as Puffin—served as curator of the Davison Art Center from 1979 until 1998. The term ”curator“ is derived from the Latin ”to care for,“ and a museum curatorship is a complex set of responsibilities, all of which demand just that, care. They include acquiring, conserving and displaying works of art, as well as pursuing the scholarly research that illuminates the meaning of such works and puts them in context. To be a curator of a university collection involves the additional obligations of teaching and mentoring students. During her tenure at the DAC, Puffin performed all the tasks of her office with uncommon energy and skill.

Only the long hiatus between her first college years at Vassar and her graduation from Wesleyan indicates that her professional path was other than traditional. She returned to college after the first two decades of marriage to Russell D’Oench—known to all as Derry—and a life spent moving from place to place and raising her children. She got her BA at Wesleyan in 1973, graduating magna cum laude alongside her son Peter, and then went on to the PhD program in art history at Yale. She completed her doctorate in 1979, with a dissertation on the eighteenth-century British painter Arthur Devis, and became curator of the DAC in the same year—in itself a notable accomplishment.

I arrived at Wesleyan the year after Puffin graduated. It was while she was doing her graduate work at Yale that we became friends, and one of my earliest memories of her is linked to Arthur Devis. During a brief sabbatical stay in England, I met Puffin and Derry in London. In her quest for works by Devis, Puffin was visiting one dark and musty manor after another. I went with her for a couple of days to Brighton, the seaside resort which was then, in October, very much out of season. Over dinner, in some near-empty restaurant, she would deliver animated accounts of the paintings she had seen that day and their sometimes eccentric though generally hospitable owners. People who know Puffin are familiar with her combination of intense professional seriousness and sly good humor, both so evident in those daily reports. Since that time I have never been able to separate the name of Arthur Devis from a faint background aroma of cigarette smoke and fish-and-chips and the sound of Puffin’s laughter.

Even as a graduate student, Puffin was making her mark in scholarship. Much of her later work has been with living artists, most of whom are printmakers and photographers rather than painters, yet her treatment of Devis does not merely show promise but already displays many of the hallmarks of her curatorial career. Devis produced many paintings, indeed many more than had originally been credited to him. By scouring official records, journals, auction and dealer catalogues, and the contents of many private collections in Brighton and elsewhere, Puffin eventually was able to show that instead of the 116 paintings that had been ascribed to Devis, his oeuvre actually comprised 281 paintings. In other words, over half of his work would have remained unidentified, or misidentified, had it not been for Puffin’s tenacity and keen detective work.

The same thoroughness that characterized her dissertation appears in her later publications like the catalogues raisonnés in Jim Dine Prints 1977–1985 (with Jean Feinberg, 1986), and Sylvia Plimack Mangold: Works on Paper 1968–1991 (with Hilarie Faberman, 1992). A peculiar sub-genre in art historical scholarship, the catalogue raisonné is a complete listing of every work by a particular artist, sometimes in one medium, sometimes in all. Like the proverbial iceberg, such a list conceals more than it reveals. Beneath the orderly, laconic inventory lies a huge effort of research, analysis and evaluation. Such painstaking discovery, laborious and time-consuming, is fundamental to any serious consideration of an artist’s career.

Moreover it was with Devis that Puffin entered the world of full-scale public exhibitions and published catalogues. Using the work she had done for her thesis, she organized a major show in 1980 at the Yale Center for British Art, ”The Conversation Piece: Devis and his Contemporaries,” for which she also wrote a substantial catalogue. Once again, the Devis project established the standard for her subsequent endeavors. Conversation pieces are informal group portraits, often in domestic settings, sometimes outdoors. Although they are charming and seem simple, they contain a great deal of information about class, fashion, social history and family relations. In the catalogue essays, Puffin conveys a full appreciation of their complexity. For each of the seventy pictures in the exhibition, she begins by tracing the history of the painting’s ownership. She goes on to specify the location where the painting is set, to identify every sitter, providing some compact biographical information, and to comment on the quality of the image. All this is accomplished with economy and grace, so that the reader or viewer learns exactly as much as he or she needs to understand the image at hand.

While diligence in discovery, attribution and description is by no means a trivial virtue, to describe someone as diligent can be to damn with faint praise. Puffin’s work goes far beyond fact-gathering and far beyond eighteenth-century British painting. In exhibition and publication, she has done everything from monographs on individual contemporary artists such as Dine and Mangold, mentioned above, and the heretofore unappreciated color photographer Robert Sheehan (1987), to thematic studies like “Prodigal Son Narratives 1480–1980” (1995), to expansive surveys such as “Five Hundred Years of Master Prints in the Davison Art Center Collection” (1981) and “Block / Plate / Stone: What a Print Is” (1994). In this last she hints at her own priorities by observing that, ”the examination of prints offers an insight into the nature of the creative process.” For another angle of interpretation we can return once again to Devis. At the end of the introductory essay in the Yale exhibition catalogue, Puffin writes of Devis that, ”[his] intensely private vision centered about the traditional values of a privileged society. Within this small compass, he recreated both a specific topography and a poetic mood that mark his enduring achievement.”

Borrowing from these two widely separated statements, I would say that Puffin’s research and writing, which are so illuminating about the artist’s creative process, are noteworthy in their attention both to specific topography and poetic mood. Varied as they are, her catalogues and essays have in common a wealth of precise historical and technical detail (the topography), and a less easily definable but equally assured critical judgment (the poetic mood). So, for example, she describes a 1977 print by Sylvia Mangold produced at the Crown Point Press:

Paper Under Tape takes as its subject both the making of art and the process of making the aquatint itself. In no other medium could Mangold have achieved the light-reflecting physicality of the image’s surface, and its translucent layering of pale colors. The print is an even more faithful replication of Mangold’s idea than her drawings. A virtuoso example of the properties of one medium ideally suited to the expression of another,Paper Under Tape is one of the marvels of collaborative Crown Point craft and, indeed, of twentieth-century intaglio printmaking.

Such qualitative assessments carry with them considerable authority, derived from experience and erudition, yet they are not meant to preëmpt or to replace the viewer’s response. Still less are they self-promoting displays of authorial virtuosity. Puffin’s critical stance always puts the art first, and she uses her evaluative comments to suggest some approaches to seeing the pictures. These few lines exemplify the unobtrusive expertise Puffin deploys as a guide to the art she is discussing.

The foregoing quotation, brief as it is, also gives some sense of her epigrammatic, elegant style. Paul Horgan, himself winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, was an aesthete, in the best sense of the term, and a generous but incisive critic of his friends’ writing. In a letter from 1987, Paul wrote to me about Puffin, whose most recent show he had just seen, ”She is so beautifully excellent in her work. I hope you receive all her catalogs—I think she has no idea of what a superb writer she is, though I’ve tried to tell her.”

Puffin arranged all her exhibitions with the same care that she brings to her writing. Several times I had the pleasure of participating as she laid out a show. She carefully weighed and balanced the central elements of an exhibition: its theme, the number, size and formal relations of the individual pictures, and the hoped-for response of the visitors to the gallery. She would lay pictures on the floor and lean them against a wall, trying out different combinations and sequences. Gradually, almost reluctantly, she would acknowledge that a grouping, then a wall, and finally the show as a whole passed muster.

I admit that at first I was skeptical about some of the subtleties she discerned, but I soon realized that she has the visual equivalent of perfect pitch. This came home to me with particular force when we were putting together an exhibition of ”Masterpieces of Photography from Wesleyan and Private Collections” (1982). As the final project of a seminar for advanced art history students, it had over one hundred photographs divided into eleven discrete subsections, each of which was organized by one or two of the participants in the class. The exhibition could easily have come to resemble a row of booths at an art fair, but Puffin went around the room again and again, patiently showing the students how to arrange their own selections so as to integrate them most effectively, and most beautifully, with the others. At last she nodded and said with a smile, ”you know, it looks pretty good.”

Mention of the seminar necessarily brings us to Puffin’s teaching, one of the responsibilities attached to her status as adjunct professor of art history. For her larger courses, like the history of prints or the history of photography, she meticulously prepared her lectures but, so far as I know, did not write them out in advance. Instead she put her slides in order and jotted some notes, so that the lecture itself was a spontaneous performance. Her method left ample room for informative digression and for response to questions from the students. She would also bring in original prints or photographs for the class to examine and discuss. Thus she taught not only the techniques and history of the medium, but also, perhaps more importantly, how to look with informed, articulate attention.

Puffin also devoted generous amounts of time to individual or small-group tutorials. By my rough and probably incomplete count, such tutorials yielded no fewer than sixteen full-scale exhibitions at the DAC, complete with wall-labels, catalogues, and all the other components that belong to a professional presentation. A representative selection of titles includes: ”Metropolis: Images of New York 1918–1938”; ”Women of the World War I Poster”; ”Gian Domenico Tiepolo and the Flight into Egypt”; ”Second State: the New Painter / Printmaker”; ”Constructing Modernism: Berenice Abbott and Henry-Russell Hitchcock.” In addition she supervised numerous smaller shows, in the Long Gallery.

Such collaborative work is one of the unique benefits that a university’s art collection offers. Especially when it is as large and varied as the DAC’s, its contents can always be presented in new combinations. During her tenure at the DAC, Puffin also encouraged extensive use of the collection by members of the faculty from throughout the university, several of whom devised exhibitions of their own. Whether their project was a major exhibition in the main gallery or a somewhat less formal display in the Long Gallery, or a detailed research project, both students and faculty had the rare opportunity to explore an outstanding collection, under the watchful eye of an expert, dedicated guide.

Indeed, throughout her curatorship one of Puffin’s central concerns was to ensure that the collection continued to grow and evolve. It was already very strong when she began. Its cornerstone was Wesleyan alumnus George W. Davison’s annual gift, starting in 1928, and his ultimate bequest in 1953, of a total of some 6,000 prints, primarily Old Masters. Puffin’s predecessors Heinrich Schwarz and Richard Field augmented this core group with additional Old Masters and expanded its scope to include modern prints and photographs. By the time Puffin took over, the DAC had achieved recognition as one of the finest university collections of works on paper in the United States.

Puffin’s acquisition policy ideally blended pragmatism and vision. She was adept at stretching the available funds, largely raised by the Friends of the Davison Art Center, to acquire works. Artists and collectors too responded to her persuasive enthusiasm with generous donations. She was able concurrently to build on existing strengths (buying, for example, splendid prints by Dürer and Rembrandt), to fill some gaps (as in German Expressionism), and to expand actively into new areas (such as color prints, works by women artists, and contemporary photographs, to name but a few). The eclectic nature of the DAC collection was nicely complemented by her own catholic tastes.

Having inherited the care of a great collection, Puffin left it even greater. In the same way her influence on her students did not stop when they graduated, for many of them have gone on to careers in art or art history. Nor did Puffin’s retirement from the DAC put an end to her own scholarly productivity. Her research has brought her back to eighteenth-century England, and in 1999 Yale University Press published her most recent book,Copper into Gold: Prints by John Raphael Smith 1751–1812.

As Paul Horgan said, Puffin has been ”beautifully excellent in her work,” as a scholar, a teacher, a colleague and a curator. The new book on John Raphael Smith shows that she never lost interest in the historical material that was the basis of her training. Nonetheless, she also worked extensively with living artists, one of whom told me, ”This is something historians don’t often do well or even like to do. They have to negotiate with printers, the artists’ dealers and the artists themselves and can easily find themselves caught up in nasty personal conflicts.” Puffin, on the other hand, not only avoided such strife but earned the respect of all those with whom she worked.

This portfolio is a celebratory tribute to all her gifts, but above all her gift for friendship. The contributors include several of the living artists whose work she has studied and exhibited, among them university colleagues, former students, men and women, the young and the not-so-young, photographers and printmakers and book illustrators and painters. We have in common our abiding admiration and affection for Puffin D’Oench.