Hester and Me by Jon Landau

New York | 29 January 2021

W hen I entered apartment 19D, 300 Central Park West, for the first time, in 1991, I was greeted by a beautiful woman, with a highly intelligent face, delightfully colorful clothing, and spectacular orange hair – Hester Diamond. As I stepped into the living room, I saw her Brancusi’s Bird in Space. When I was seated in the dining room, I looked up to see a classic Mondrian. Next to it was a Picasso from 1920, and next to that, rather intriguingly, a sixteenth-century Italian Madonna and Child. I say intriguingly because my interests as a collector and student had recently gone through an evolution from American modernism to old master art, especially Italian art. It turned out that Hester had gone through an evolution, as well – in her case, from modern art to old masters. As we sat eating, Hester asked me, in her famously direct, almost brusque way, who I thought had painted this beautiful Italian painting. Being relatively new to old masters, I mistakenly thought it was by Andrea del Sarto. It turned out to be by his magnificent student Pontormo.

It was close enough so that Hester decided, soon after, that we were meant to be “pals,” – and when Hester decided, that was that. For the next 21 years, we would often visit museums together, attend lectures together, gossip together, travel together, serve on committees together, and dine together.

Hester was a gourmet, had a great chef, and loved to host salon-like evenings, where my wife Barbara and I were frequent guests. Among the regulars were curators, including her many friends from the Met, conservators, collectors, scholars, and, perhaps, a dealer or two. There would be some fascinating civilians, as well, such as musicians, playwrights, and authors. Her guests always had one thing in common: They were interesting. Did we talk about subjects other than art? Definitely – but for five or ten minutes at the most. She considered almost anything other than art to be small talk and, Hester was never interested in small talk. Our shared love of old master art was a big part of the glue that held our friendship together.

Hester and her brilliant and dearly missed second husband, Ralph Kaminsky, collected friends wherever they went. For a while, they had a place in Shanghai, where they would hang out, sometimes for months at a time. And they shared in Ralph’s great interest in contemporary classical music. Ralph was an extreme devotee of Wagner’s, and the two of them had a whole subset of friends from across the United States, Europe, and China, united by just one thing – Wagner.

Our first trip together was to Siena with Ralph, Barbara, and Hester’s best friend, the collector, and scholar, Mary Jane Harris. Touring Siena with Hester and Mary Jane was a revelation. I learned how much I loved the material – and how little I knew about it. Their thirst for knowledge was inspiring.

In later years we enjoyed walking through Maastricht together. As our parallel collections grew, we found that while we shared a love for all the same periods (from Gothic to Renaissance to Mannerist to Baroque), we tended to have different taste as collectors. That usually, but not always, saved us from competing over the same object. I never wanted to compete with Hester, as defeat would surely follow.

In May 2012, Barbara and I and Hester flew to Strasbourg to see a rare exhibition of the sculpture of Niclaus Gerhaert von Leyden and then drove to the city of Colmar to see the legendary Issenheim Altarpiece. Hester had seen it 25 years before, but Barbara and I were seeing it for the first time.

It is the unanimous verdict of art history that Gruenwald’s masterpiece is among the finest works created during the Renaissance. And it didn’t disappoint us. We had to walk through seemingly endless rooms of tedious and provincial German painting to get to it. But then we turned a corner, and there it was, among the greatest Crucifixions of all time, staring at us, eyeball to eyeball. Hester declared that it was both just as she remembered it, but that new conservation had made it even more impactful. The three of us spent nearly three hours taking in every detail (or so we thought) of the ten large panels.

It being asparagus season in the Alsace region, Hester suggested that we go to a local bistro that she had researched (she left nothing to chance), and we had some of the world’s best asparagus for lunch. Duly reinvigorated, we went back to take another quick look at the Altarpiece. But when we arrived, we suddenly found whole other layers of meaning, brushwork, and detail that we hadn’t even gotten to during the morning visit. So, the three of us spent another several hours looking, observing, looking, discussing, and then looking again – and just having a hell of a good time. It is always thrilling to be in the presence of a work of such a transcendent creation. For the three of us to share that thrill – well, for me, that’s what it’s all about.

An adventure from 2010 also stands out. In the space of five days, we went to Rome (for Carravaggio), to Siena (for a beautiful exhibition on the history of Sienese sculpture), to Conegliano (for a retrospective about Cima), to Bassano (for a biographical show about the extraordinary Jacopo Bassano) and Orvieto (to re-see the cathedral). Whew, we were moving fast.

Hester, who was then in her early eighties, would say to me and our friend Andrew Butterfield, “If I get tired and need to go back to the hotel for a break, I want you to continue without me.” Of course, around 5:30, Andrew and I would be dying for a break, and Hester would be fresh as a daisy, looking as perfect as ever. By the way, no matter what else we were doing, around 3:00 PM, she insisted we stop for gelato.

Oddly enough, Orvieto was the star of the trip. We lingered on the cathedral steps, just taking in the gloriously carved marble reliefs on the facade, dating from the 1330s, and organized around Old and New Testament legends. The more we looked, the more we wanted to see. A couple of hours went by, and we hadn’t moved off of those steps. It was a gorgeous Spring Day, with flowers blooming, birds singing, and as clear a sky as I will ever see. The two pals stood there long enough to see and feel the effect of the gradually changing light on the marble – just as the artists must have planned it. It was an exquisite experience, and it was just the kind of moment that Hester Diamond spent her life searching for – moments of sublime perfection. She found one of those moments that day, right there, in Orvieto, Italy. As for me, I was just happy to have been along for the ride.

About the Author

Jon Landau
Collector and Co-Founder of VISTAS