The extraordinary collection of Fayez S. Sarofim revealed
A Texas museum unveils more than 200 Egyptian, American and European masterworks, assembled over 60 years
Last November, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s decade-long expansion plan culminated in the opening of the Nancy and Rich Kinder Building, a Steven Holl-designed space for the institution’s permanent modern and contemporary collections. Among the principal donors for the museum’s $476-million capital campaign were Susan and Fayez S. Sarofim, after whom the museum’s 14-acre campus is named.
While the Sarofims’ philanthropic contributions are widely known in Houston, this summer will mark the first time that artworks showcasing the totality of their collection will be publicly exhibited together. With pieces ranging from Lucas Cranach the Elder to John Singer Sargent and Willem de Kooning, Three Centuries of American Art: Antiquities, European and American Masterpieces from the Fayez S. Sarofim Collection is bound to make even the most versed international curator’s jaw drop.
The exhibition is open from 27 June-6 September and highlights more than 200 works assembled over 60 years.
‘This exhibition is going to come to the world as a major revelation of what this man has accomplished,’ Gary Tinterow, Director, the Margaret Alkek Williams Chair, MFAH, tells Christie’s. One of the privileged few acquainted with the breadth of the private collection, Tinterow urged Sarofim to share it with the public, as the collection’s timelessness and vastness render it a museum in itself.
‘Mr Sarofim wanted to make sure everything in the catalogue and here at the museum would reflect high quality, that we’d only show the best,’ explains Tinterow. ‘That was actually quite easily achieved.’
The collection reflects Sarofim’s distinct heritage as a Christian Egyptian from a distinguished Coptic family, who later settled down in the American Southwest. Born in Cairo in 1928, Sarofim attended the University of California, Berkeley before earning an MBA at Harvard Business School.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Sarofim became an accomplished businessman — he landed a job at Houston’s Anderson, Clayton and Company, then the largest cotton trading company in the world. He eventually launched his own firm, where he managed financial portfolios for foundations, universities, hospitals, private investors and cultural institutions, including MFAH.
As his fortune grew, so did his art collection. Interestingly, Sarofim’s multifaceted, maternal grandfather, Marcus Simaika Pasha, founded and built the Coptic Museum of Cairo, the largest and most important repository of Egyptian early Christian artefacts and manuscripts.
This undoubtedly inspired Sarofim’s own reverence for history, art and culture, which would continue to blossom as he became more entrenched in Houston’s growing art scene in the 1960s. For example, over six decades he formed a friendship with gallerist Meredith J. Long of Long and Company, who — among many successes — helped place nearly four dozen John Singer Sargents with Houston collectors.
In addition to acquiring works by a veritable who’s who of American and European artists from the 19th century onwards, Sarofim also assembled important Ancient Egyptian, Coptic and Southwest Native American art. The exhibition galleries across the museum’s Upper Brown Pavilion are, therefore, organised thematically to reflect the collector’s myriad interests.
Ancient Egyptian highlights include funerary figures, sculptural depictions of symbolic fish, falcons and cats, as well as limestone relief fragments whose pigments remain remarkably vivid. Linen and wool Coptic textiles illustrate the Greek and Roman influences on the aesthetics of Egypt’s Late Antique period, beginning about the third century AD.
Upon moving to Texas, Sarofim often travelled north to Santa Fe, where he collected several indigenous works from around the region. In addition to Mimbres and Pueblo pottery, Navajo blankets from 1850–90 depict the bold visual vocabulary and geometric designs of various Native American tribes.
The bulk of Sarofim’s collection is paintings by 20th-century American artists, including Edward Hopper, George Bellows, Mary Cassatt, John Singleton Copley, Winslow Homer and Childe Hassam. Portraiture and landscapes range from the earliest years of American independence through American Impressionism and the Ashcan School. American Modernists represented include Stuart Davis, Marsden Hartley and Georgia O’Keeffe.
Of all the categories, Tinterow believes Sarofim to be particularly passionate about modern art and abstraction, both in painting and sculpture: ‘He is attracted to bold and graphic images, and they can be geometric — like works by Burgoyne Diller — or they can be biomorphic — as in Rothko, David Smith and Arshile Gorky — or they can be expressionist — as in Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell or Willem de Kooning.’
Other contemporary American highlights include pieces by Alexander Calder, Helen Frankenthaler, Jasper Johns, Robert Motherwell and Robert Rauschenberg.
Unlike the thematic gallery groupings, the Sarofims live with pieces across generations and locales mixed throughout their homes. ‘There’s art everywhere,’ says Tinterow. ‘It’s clear Mr Sarofim loves looking and thinking about it.’
In addition to antiquities and works by American artists, pieces by Picasso, Henry Moore and Joaquín Torres-García, as well as Old Masters, such as Lucas Cranach the Elder and El Greco, can be found in Sarofim’s residences. As Tinterow says: ‘Art furnished his life.’