Anne d'Harnoncourt, age 64, who died at her Fitler Square home Sunday, was a towering presence in Philadelphia. Quite literally, as the elegant director and CEO of the Philadelphia Museum of Art was a regal six feet. She was synonomous w
Anne d'Harnoncourt, age 64, who died at her Fitler Square home Sunday, was a towering presence in Philadelphia. Quite literally, as the elegant director and CEO of the Philadelphia Museum of Art was a regal six feet. She was synonomous with the institution, which she headed since 1982.
Ms. d'Harnoncourt was known for her outgoing manner, oversized art jewelry and shawls, and a gray mane regularly perched above her head in the manner of a Gibson Girl. She seemed of this age and one much earlier, and she carried herself that way. She was museum nobility, the daughter of Rene d'Harnoncourt, the son of a Viennese Count, who helped assemble the Museum of Modern Art.
Enormously diplomatic, d'Harnoncourt loathed being perceived as prefering one artist or donor at the expense of another. She thwarted many a reporter trying to get a quote. It was possible to spend an hour in her presence discussing major gifts without the director ever mentioning the word money. The New York Times once ran a profile of her correctly titled "Master of the Gentle Sidestep." Ms. d'Harnoncourt would have had an equally illustrious career in the State Department.
Ms. d'Harnoncourt was also the voice of the museum, frequently narrating the acoustiguides for blockbuster exhibitions. Like George Plimpton, William F. Buckley or Julia Child (whose height and vocal timbre she shared), Ms. d'Harnoncourt had one of those throwback, lockjaw, plummy, patrician voices of an earlier era, as musical and entertaining as a Gilbert and Sullivan performer.
She was an enormous, indelible presence. Ms. d'Harnoncourt, with her husband, Joseph Rishel, senior curator of European painting before 1990, constituted the city's first couple of art. Her death is shocking. Her presence still felt. It's hard to think of the Philadelphia Museum of Art without her.