When Perry Ottenberg died at age 92 in March of last year, the region lost one of its most eminent psychiatrists – he began his residency at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in 1952, and retired from Penn as a professor of psychiatry in 2015.
Ottenberg also maintained a private practice all those years, and authored over 100 scholarly and general interest articles. With his wife, June, director of the Temple University music library, and a pianist and historian of opera, Ottenberg amassed one of the finest collections of 20th century Philadelphia-centered art and design anywhere.
The couple – married 65 years – focused almost entirely on artists and craftsmen from the region: painter Arthur B. Carles, furniture designer George Nakashima, ceramist Rudolf Staffel, and many others.
Now, with the death of 91-year-old June Fuller Ottenberg in August 2017, much of the Ottenberg collection is coming to auction.
On Sunday, Freeman’s will feature sales of 14 canvases by Carles, ranging from about 1910 into the 1930s.
On Monday, Nakashima furniture and Staffel ceramics will be sold.
Alasdair Nichol, Freeman’s chairman, said simply that Perry Ottenberg “was the Carles man in Philadelphia.”
Although his passion may have been for Carles, both Ottenbergs maintained a broader passion for artists and crafts workers from the Philadelphia region. Perry Ottenberg once wrote that “the collection in our home reflects the genius of Philadelphia in contemporary arts and crafts.” He added that “it is wonderful to live with omnipresent beauty that one can touch and feel.”
“My father was a very visually conscious and astute man,” Elise Ottenberg said. “He loved Carles, but there were other artists. … In probably the 1960s, I remember going to artists’ homes in Headhouse Square.” There were also trips to New Hope to visit Nakashima.
“Perry and June approached this work with a simple love for it,” said Tim Andreadis, head of Freeman’s department of 20th century design. “I don’t recall having heard or seen a collection of this depth.”
Perry Ottenberg was a board member at different times of Moore College of Art and Design and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He also was involved with Temple’s Tyler School of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Woodmere Art Museum.
Over the years, the Ottenbergs gave and loaned works to the Art Museum and many other art institutions, and prior to the Freeman’s auctions, the four Ottenberg children gave a cache of 300 works on paper spanning Carles’ entire career to Woodmere. The artist died in 1952.
“Some of the paintings [going to auction] brought a lot of joy to my father,” Elise Ottenberg said. “The portrait of Mrs. Carles [painted in 1924] brought my father an enormous amount of pleasure.”
Scholar Barbara A. Wolanin, author of Arthur B. Carles (1882-1952): Painting With Color, first met the Ottenbergs in 1974 when she visited their house in Merion in an effort to decide whether to do her dissertation on Carles. (She did.)
Wolanin marveled at a house filled virtually floor to ceiling with paintings by Carles and his students, Staffel ceramics, and Nakashima furniture (very much in daily use).
Perry Ottenberg, Wolanin said, was attracted to “vivid color.” Carles more than fulfilled that attraction.
In Wolanin’s view, Carles prefigured abstract expressionism and might have reached that non-representational realm had he not suffered increasingly from alcoholism, which led to a career-ending injury in 1941.
Painter Bill Scott, who knew the Ottenbergs and their collection, said that the Carles paintings “appear effortless,” but that they were the result of careful planning.
“It takes a lot of work to make it look so easy,” Scott said.
After the death of both parents within a few months of each other, Elise Ottenberg said that she and her siblings decided it was time to let much of the remaining collection “go out into the world.”
“There was just so much stuff,” she said. “My father was an incredibly generous man. He was a big sharer. But I want to say that my mother had my father’s back. He was in part able to do this because she thought he should. … She helped him do it. She empowered him.”