Alice Kaplan was something!
Patron, scholar, and activist in the arts, she was elegant and talented. She fulfilled with grace the conventional roles of women of her time and position—and much more besides.
Alice had a keen, well-trained eye and an innate sense of beauty in all places. A competent and happy pianist and painter of portraits, she also enjoyed designing country landscapes and the domestic interiors of family and friends.
As trustee and vice-president of the J. M. Kaplan Fund since its founding by her husband, Jacob, in 1945, she emphatically urged the foundation to support music, dance, libraries, and the visual arts.
She was a member of the boards of museums and other cultural institutions, and the long-serving president of the American Federation of the Arts, where she developed many traveling exhibitions and produced an educational film, The Art of Seeing.
She led the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the historic 1913 Armory Show.
Years earlier, on the beach at East Hampton with Eugene Thaw and a few other old friends, she learned of the imminent demise of the Hewitt sisters’ famous collection of decorative arts material. She went into high gear to help rescue this collection and with it establish what has become the Cooper Hewitt, National Design Museum of the Smithsonian Institution.
At home, purely for the joy in the doing, she assembled a superb and very personal collection of works of art from many periods and cultures. (See Bantel: The Alice M. Kaplan Collection, Columbia University Press, 1981). Eventually she donated the majority of this collection to museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum, Yale University Art Galleries, and museums in Boston, Cambridge, Philadelphia, Newark, Chicago, and elsewhere.
In her sixties, Alice enrolled in Columbia University to earn a graduate degree in art history. One day, as she strolled the streets, galleries, antique shops and second-hand stores she loved, she spotted an unsigned drawing leaning against a wall. She bought it and then mulled it over at length. She did research on it and discovered it to be the central portion of Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of Horatii. The drawing now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Alice was a familiar and welcome figure on New York’s cultural scene (not above, once, making her own Rothko painting that fooled a prominent art critic), the grandmother of seven Kaplan Fund trustees, and a distinguished contributor to the city she loved.
An interview with Alice recorded in Spring 1978 for the Archives of American Art can be found here.
Alice M. Kaplan, born in 1904, died at her home in New York in 1995.