John Driscoll, Scholar, Art Dealer and Collector, Dies at 70

John Driscoll, Scholar, Art Dealer and Collector, Dies at 70


This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

John Driscoll’s first visit to a museum, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, at age 10, had been a tedious affair until he came upon “Lucretia,” Rembrandt’s painting of the suicide of a Roman nobleman’s wife.

Her gown is bloody. A dagger is still in her right hand.

“And I can tell you right now that painting went through me like a freight train,” Dr. Driscoll recalled in 2019. “I don’t know if I was shaking on the outside, but I was shaking on the inside. I was mesmerized.”

He soon began craving more of that type of sensory experience, and he would go on to find it often in a career in art that included owning the venerable Driscoll Babcock Galleries in Manhattan and assembling a major collection of English studio pottery.

He died on April 10 in Peekskill, N.Y., at 70. His death, which was not widely reported at the time, was caused by the new coronavirus, according to his wife, Marylyn Dintenfass, a painter.

When Dr. Driscoll bought Babcock Galleries — on East 80th Street near Madison Avenue — in 1987, he had already held several curatorial jobs and been a partner in a Boston gallery. At Babcock — New York’s oldest gallery, having opened in 1852 — he widened its focus, combining historical and more recent work under one roof. Where the gallery had specialized in early 20th-century art and the American Modernism of artists like Marsden Hartley, he added 19th-century paintings, in particular landscapes by the Hudson River School, as well as the work of post-World War II artists.

“He was one of the first dealers who had come as a scholar from the museum world and one of the first to combine earlier historical art with more contemporary art,” Barbara Haskell, a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, said in an interview.

Dr. Driscoll’s biography “John Frederick Kensett: An American Master” (1985) — one of many books he wrote — helped establish him as a leading authority on that Hudson River artist known for his luminist paintings.

John Paul Driscoll was born on Oct. 28, 1949, in Madison, Minn., and grew up nearby in Clarkfield, a farming village. His mother, Vida (Loafman) Driscoll, owned dry cleaning shops, a cafe and a uniform store. His father, Paul, was a high school teacher and coach.

With his father’s encouragement, John hunted for agates and Native American artifacts and collected coins and stamps. He grew so enamored with the beauty of early American coins that he started his own coin-dealing business when he was about 12.

“His father once read in the paper that there was a coin show in town,” Ms. Dintenfass said in a phone interview. “And after telling John, who was 14 or 15, he saw that John’s name was on it — that he’d put the whole thing together without telling his parents.”

After earning a bachelor’s degree in history and art history at the University of Minnesota, Morris, Dr. Driscoll studied for a master’s in art history at Penn State University, where he also earned a Ph.D. in American art.

His interest in collecting ceramics, in particular British pottery, began when he was a graduate assistant at the Museum of Art at Penn State (now the Palmer Museum of Art).

Captivated by the pots, he found he could afford them even on his modest salary. Paying from $4 to $80 for individual pieces, he bought works by significant contemporary potters like Lucie Rie, John Ward, Annette Fuchs and Hans Coper. Soon he traveled to England to visit potters, including Ms. Rie and Mr. Ward, spending $3,000 on 50 to 60 pots.

Dr. Driscoll continued to amass a world-class collection of pottery privately as he rose to registrar at the Penn State museum; curator of the private art holdings of the William H. Lane Foundation in Leominster, Mass.; guest curator at the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts; and partner at Driscoll & Walsh Fine Arts in Boston in the mid-1980s. After acquiring Babcock in New York, he renamed it Driscoll Babcock Galleries in 2012.

Dr. Driscoll sold works both to private collectors and to museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art, the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, where he first saw “Lucretia.”

In addition to his wife, he is survived by his daughters, Emily and Gillian Driscoll; his stepdaughters, Sharon Katz and Elana Amsterdam; his stepsons, Robert and Marc Katz; his brothers, Charles and Robert; and five grandchildren. His marriage to Jeanne Baker ended in divorce.

In 2015, Dr. Driscoll arranged the purchase of one of two surviving versions of Emanuel Leutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” from 1851. A collector who had lent it to the White House for 35 years sold it to the founders of the Minnesota Marine Art Museum in Winona.

“It’s probably the most famous American painting west of the Hudson River,” Dr. Driscoll said when it was unveiled. “At auction, this picture would have pulled out not only art collectors but ultrapatriots who are very wealthy.”

After his death, Mary Burrichter, one of the museum’s founders, lauded his help as an adviser.

“We would get comments from guests like, ‘This museum belongs on the East Coast or West Coast; why is it in a small town of 27,000 and not in a major city?’” she told the Star Tribune of Minneapolis. “John just loved that feedback.”



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