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Farewell to Bill Jordan

William Jordan at his Turtle Creek home in Dallas, Aug. 9, 2017 (Cooper Neill/The New York Times)

When Bill Jordan moved to Dallas in 1967 to lead the art department at Southern Methodist University and form the collection of the incipient Meadows Museum, he was a recent Ph.D. with no experience either of the art market or with museum or university administration. Within a few short years, he had assembled the nucleus of the most distinguished collection of Spanish art in America outside the Hispanic Society in New York. A quick study, he learned the ways of the highly complex art market in European old master paintings, and with art historical training and an “eye” (as we said in those days), he could tell fakes, copies, and ruined paintings from authentic and correctly attributed ones, and could spot unknown pictures of real quality, snapping them up for little money because he knew that their attributions would come in time.

His keenly observant connoisseurship had few equals in the realm of Spanish painting, and as he learned the market for Spanish art he was able to shape the Meadows’ collection with both masterpieces by great artists and wonderful works by secondary ones. He did so with money provided by his patron, Algur Meadows, and this shy young man from San Antonio became a friend and confidant of one of the most powerful oil men in America. As the Meadows Museum strengthened and, particularly, after Mr. Meadows’ death, Bill became restless with his focused teaching and collecting at SMU and was hired in 1976 as an Adjunct Curator of European Art for the Dallas Museum of Art, continuing his work at SMU at the same time.

This move – inconsequential as it seemed—allowed him greater sway over the larger population of Dallas. Not only did he work to bring the landmark El Greco exhibition to the Dallas Museum of Fine Art in Fair Park in 1982-1983, but he also advised the trustees of the Museum and The Foundation for the Arts in their acquisitions. The most significant acquisition he masterminded was Courbet’s great 1860 Fox in the Snow, in 1979. This, an early acquisition of the John B. O’Hara Fund, was completely outside his field of art historical expertise and demonstrated the range of his knowledge both of art history and of the art market.

Bill’s years of experience at the Meadows and the DMA readied him to extend the range of his art historical responsibilities, and his good friend and former colleague Ted Pillsbury, Director of the Kimbell Art Museum, recognized that he didn’t have to go to New York or Europe for a talented and well-trained connoisseur of European art. Instead, he hired Bill, whose years in Fort Worth were as distinguished as those in Dallas. As Deputy Director at the Kimbell, Bill had the luxury of larger budgets for exhibitions and acquisitions and, together with Ted, was responsible for a string of brilliant additions to the collection and designed an exhibitions program that was the envy of museums throughout the world. Bill left the Kimbell in 1990 to become an independent scholar.

He did all of this without ever raising his voice, expressing an opinion in a strong manner, or making waves. Modesty and politeness were his calling cards—perhaps for that reason, he usually “got his way” with little struggle. As his career developed, his life-style changed from the casual informality of a young curator to an almost courtly style which he maintained with no pretention. I well remember taking my graduate students from UT Austin to his small house in the Park Cities in 1977 or 1978 to find the walls filled with old master and modern drawings, many in search of attributions that he soon provided. It was a classic curator’s collection.

Bill spent his later years with his life partner Robert Brownlee in a Turtle Creek apartment building in which most of the inhabitants had connections to the art world. The two men lived in an atmosphere of refined elegance, and their collection assumed greater importance with major drawings by artists like Delacroix and Cézanne, varied works of sculpture, and old master paintings. A combination of modern and traditional furniture formed a perfect frame for this supremely personal collection of art.

As with all else in Bill’s world, his life was private–easily opened up to friends from the global art community and from Dallas and Fort Worth society, but never trumpeted through publicity or frequent “art tours.” His world was shared with Robert and with their closest friends.

After the Kimbell years, Bill joined many boards both locally and nationally. He was an essential member of the boards of the Nasher Sculpture Center, The Dallas Museum of Art, and The Foundation for the Arts. His advice about acquisitions and exhibitions at the Meadows, a museum he essentially created, was only offered when sought and, fortunately, that was often. He also became involved with the Chinati Foundation in Marfa.

Bill financed his post-Kimbell years by working as a private art dealer, working with his usual discretion to bring works of art discerning museums and collectors together. Again, this highly successful avocation was never trumpeted, and many of his friends had no knowledge that his considerable eye was put to the benefit of others in the market. Although this part of his career is not usually mentioned as a capstone to a life of scholarship and museum work, it was no less important, and his careful placement of works of art in public and private collections was as distinguished as all other aspects of his varied career.

But Bill could never do just one thing at a time. In the past five years, Olivier Meslay involved him in the creation of an exhibition and scholarly catalogue of modern European drawings from local private collections at the DMA, and few projects at the Nasher or the DMA happened without his blessing. If Bill didn’t like something, he rarely said anything, but his friends and colleagues could always tell.

All agree that the high point of his long and distinguished career was his personal acquisition in 1988 of an anonymous seventeenth-century Spanish portrait of Phillip III of Spain. Bill was convinced that the painting was by no less than Velázquez, three of whose paintings he had acquired for the Meadows Museum and one for the Kimbell. He lived with it at home for many years, but when his attribution to Velázquez was widely recognized, Bill gave the invaluable portrait to the American Friends of the Prado Museum, where it is on display with the museum’s definitive collection of works by Velasquez. The English edition of the museum’s book on Phillip III has recently been released by the American Friends of Prado Museum. Bill’s supreme achievement as a scholar of Spanish art was recognized when the Prado appointed him to its board of directors.

The boy who was born in Nashville, raised in San Antonio, and educated in Virginia and New York, spent his life enriching Dallas and Fort Worth in so many ways that it is impossible to recount. He was, in short, the most important teacher and museum professional of his generation in Texas. Yet this final appointment to the board of directors of the greatest museum in Spain provided a real sense that his Texas career mattered to the world at large. In his final days in Clements Hospital in Dallas, he spent hours daily emailing friends far and wide, making plans for meetings, meals, trips, and projects that, sadly, will never happen. How we all wish they had.

At the O’Donnell Institute, our last memory of Bill came from his participation with art historians, conservators, and museum professionals from the U.S. and Spain at a scholars’ day co-sponsored by the Meadows and EODIAH. He looked pale and ill, but his eyes sparkled and he told stories and sharpened our observations with his thoughtful comments. It was to be his last visit to his beloved Meadows, and all of us with him will remember that day because we shared it with Bill.

Prado Museum Publication

The Prado Museum in Spain published in June 2017 a book on the discovery made by Mr. William B. Jordan of the oil on canvas painting, Portait of King Philip III, and its firm attribution to Diego Velázquez.
The publication in Spanish is available at the Prado bookstore.
It includes essays by: William B. Jordan, art historian; John Elliot, art historian; Javier Portus, Chief Curator of Spanish painting (up to 1700) at the Prado Museum; and Jaime García-Maiquez, member of the Technical Studio of the Conservation Dept. of the Prado Museum.
Since William B. Jordan donated the work to American Friends of the Prado Museum, the Prado made plans to publish the same book in English.