Roger Ward in Italy (photo courtesy of Alan McDermott)
The former curator of European art at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art left a magnificent legacy on the museum’s walls
Roger Ward, curator of European art at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art from 1982 to 2001, passed away Aug. 5 at the age of 68 after a brief illness. He leaves a magnificent legacy on the walls of the Nelson.
Roger graduated from the University of Kansas with degrees in Renaissance history and the history of art. Recipient of a Marshall Scholarship, he did his graduate work at the Courtauld Institute in London, focusing on 16th- and 17th-century art from Spain and Italy. Coming to the Nelson in 1982 with a newly minted Ph.D., he joined the curatorial staff at an auspicious time, before the crazy escalation of prices in the art market. With his scholarly knowledge, dealer contacts and great eye for quality and condition, Roger was able to buy pictures by such marquee names as Jusepe de Ribera, Théodore Gericault, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Guercino and Eugène Delacroix as complements to the Nelson’s already important collection. Marc Wilson, the museum’s director at the time, was an enthusiastic collaborator.
But Roger also had a talent for buying pictures from lesser-known artists who were on the verge of discovery. The 17th-century Dutch artist Dirck van Baburen, a follower from Utrecht of Caravaggio, was not much on the art world’s radar when Roger bought a work by him from a private British collection. Van Baburen’s critical reputation has grown in the years since, to the point where his prices have dramatically increased today. A similar artist who is now a hot property is the Dutch Mannerist Joachim Wtewael, whose peculiar painting of Saint Sebastian bound to a tree was being considered by the Louvre before Roger bought it out from under them, as he told the story. The Impressionist painter Gustave Caillebotte’s superb portrait at the Nelson was purchased by Roger well before that artist’s auction prices skyrocketed. (The Getty Museum in Los Angeles paid $53 million for a Caillebotte in 2021.)
Roger was also a passionate believer in pairing great frames with great pictures. With the assistance of a London frame dealer, Paul Mitchell, Roger would match computer images of empty frames with slides of a Nelson picture to see what looked “right.” When he couldn’t find the right period frame for Caravaggio’s “St. John the Baptist,” he had one specially constructed for this Nelson masterpiece. Roger became an acknowledged expert in this field and was invited to other museums to lecture on frames, among them the Frick in New York.
Roger left the Nelson in 2001 to become the chief curator of the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, later becoming the museum’s deputy director. He also consulted for the Museum of Mississippi in Jackson and the Bass Museum in Miami Beach. After he retired, he returned to Kansas City, where he spent his time pursuing scholarly research at the Nelson’s Spencer library and cooking great meals for his friends.
On a personal note, let me tell you about another of Roger’s myriad talents: tour guide in Italy! I accompanied him on four trips to Italy during the 1990s, usually when he was planning to take a group from the Nelson on a curated tour the following year. It was a fabulous education. At various times we toured Tuscany, Rome, Lake Maggiore, Venice and the Veneto, Umbria and Emilia-Romagna. He found in me a willing subject, as I had minored in art history in college.
But I had my limits. One day in Rome, after looking at altarpieces at seven different churches, I rebelled. Hot and tired, I said, “Roger, I cannot see another church. I’m going back to the hotel for a shower and a drink!” As I recall, he said, “Good idea!”
I will miss my longtime friend’s great company, knowledge and wit. In his memory, I suggest spending time in the Nelson’s European galleries, taking in the treasures curated by Roger Ward.