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March 16, 2009

Lorenz Eitner, founding spirit behind Stanford's museum and art department, dies at 89

When Lorenz Eitner came to Stanford in 1963 to be chairman of its art department and director of its museum, he found departmental offices and classes cramped into one tiny building, faculty members with no offices and antiquated equipment. The Stanford Museum, the oldest west of the Mississippi, had been three-quarters rubble since the 1906 earthquake.

By the time he retired in 1989, he had recruited a nationally prominent faculty of artists and art historians, revamped and expanded the curriculum, added PhD and MFA programs and created a highly ranked museum.

The Osgood Hooker Professor in Fine Arts, Emeritus, Eitner died March 11 at his home of a heart attack. He was 89.

"He was one of the pillars on which Stanford built its national and worldwide standing as a university," said Fred Hargadon, Stanford's dean of admissions from 1969 to 1984. Hargadon, a personal friend, called him "one of Stanford's legendary professors."

"Lorenz was a giant—in his field, as a professor and as a human being," he said.

Mona Duggan, associate director of the Cantor Center for Visual Arts (formerly the Stanford Museum), knew Eitner since the 1970s; she was his administrative assistant for five years in the 1980s.

"It's not often one finds someone with the extent of his abilities. He was a distinguished scholar, a respected and committed teacher. Moreover, while maintaining his work as a scholar and teaching, he took a small department and made it a respected institution. He brought the museum back from serious neglect," she said. "We have an outstanding collection of 19th-century prints and drawings, thanks to him."

Eitner, an expert in 18th- and 19th-century European art and renowned for his work on Théodore Géricault, was born Aug. 27, 1919, in Brno, Czechoslovakia, of Austrian parents. His mother belonged to the Thonet family, which had originated the bentwood furniture-making process. His father worked in the business.

Eitner was educated in Frankfurt and Berlin. The family moved to Brussels about the time the Nazis came to power, and immigrated to South Carolina in 1935. He earned a bachelor's degree from Duke University, where he graduated summa cum laude in 1940. He was drafted two years later. He eventually became a U.S. intelligence officer with the Office of Strategic Services and was stationed in Washington, London, Paris and Salzburg. He was head of the research section in the Office of Chief Prosecution for the Nuremberg Trials. He met his future wife, Trudi von Kathrein, in Austria; she had been the secretary to one of the leaders in the Austrian resistance.

After the trials, he returned to the United States to earn his MFA and PhD degrees from Princeton (1948 and 1952), with a dissertation on Géricault, which was published by Princeton University Press in 1952.

After a 14-year stint at the University of Minnesota, he came to Stanford in 1963 to head what was then called the Department of Art and Architecture, as well as to serve as a volunteer director of the Stanford Museum. He was dismayed by the conditions: In the art history classes, students squatted on the floor or leaned against a wall to watch poor-quality slides projected on a wrinkled screen; gashes in the window shades leaked light into the room, which doubled as a printmaking studio. One curator had called the museum a "morgue of relics." Storage areas, unlit and with no security, were ransacked by local collectors and dealers. Other departments, such as biology, had taken over some of the rooms, and biological specimens (even a preserved shark) were in the basement.

These dismal circumstances launched Eitner's career as an entrepreneur: In the museum, he expanded the 1,400-square-foot gallery to 33,000 square feet. He oversaw the installation of a new power supply and ventilation system, stripped galleries down to concrete and refurbished them, adding new lighting along the way. He proved a gifted fundraiser, flying to auctions in London and New York to return with Turners and Géricaults. The museum organized its own shows, produced scholarly catalogs, created a docent-training program and launched a journal. The 52,000-square-foot Cummings Art Building was completed in 1968.

"He very clearly knew what he wanted to accomplish, and didn't deviate from being focused on those goals," Duggan said. "Honestly, I don't think the museum would be open today if it weren't for him."

Equally important, Eitner was able to attract academics and artists—for example, artists Nathan Oliveira and Frank Lobdell; Asian art expert Michael Sullivan; and Kurt Forster, who went on to found and direct the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities. Most notably, he invited Albert Elsen, an internationally known expert on Rodin, to come with him to join the faculty in 1963. Elsen was a driving force behind Stanford's Rodin collection and outdoor sculpture garden. Eitner also invited Stanford alumnus Richard Diebenkorn to be an artist-in residence in 1963-64.

"An enormous, ill-conceived Museum perished in 1906, a victim of the University's lack of concern as much as of the earthquake," he wrote five years before his retirement. "A new, better-proportioned and more functional Museum exists in 1984; it is full of promise, but it rests on a fragile and incomplete base—something less than an earthquake could still bring it down."

He retired in 1989. The Loma Prieta earthquake struck two months later, closing the museum for a decade. In a sense, his career had been bracketed by earthquakes: the 1906 quake that left the museum a ruin for more than half a century, and the Loma Prieta earthquake.

In a sense, but not entirely. Eitner's retirement was active: He wrote a catalog of the museum's 1,100 drawings. In recent years he continued his study of Géricault and was working actively on his autobiography until his death. His son-in-law Bill Neidig recalls that even on the day he died, Eitner received artwork for authentication from a New York dealer.

Eitner was a Fulbright Fellow (1952-53) in Brussels and a Guggenheim Fellow (1956-57) in Munich. He received a National Endowment for the Humanities Research Grant, and both a $10,000 Mitchell Prize for the History of Art and a Charles Rufus Morey Book Award of the College Art Association for his book Géricault: His Life and Work (1983). He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1988. He won Stanford's Gores Award for excellence in teaching in 1986. (Among his many distinguished students was the late Kirk Varnedoe, head of the painting department at New York's Museum of Modern Art.)

He was awarded the Gold Medal for Meritorious Service to the Austrian Republic in 1990. The award is one of the highest decorations Austria bestows.

In addition to his wife, Trudi, he is survived by his daughters Christy Neidig, Kathy Kirby and Claudia Eitner, and granddaughter Stephanie Neidig.

Memorial services are pending.

Editor Note:

High-resolution photos can be downloaded at



Cynthia Haven, News Service: (650) 724-6184,


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