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Biographical Note | A Finding Aid to the René d'Harnoncourt papers, 1921-1983

René d'Harnoncourt papers, 1921-1983

Biographical Note

Art curator, lecturer, and museum director, René d'Harnoncourt (1901-1968), was an authority on Native American art and Mexican arts and crafts. He curated and toured with a traveling exhibition, Mexican Art, from 1930-1932, guest curated the exhibition, Indian Art of the United States, for the Museum of Modern Art in 1941, served on the Department of the Interior's Indian Arts and Crafts Board from 1937-1944, and was Director of the Museum of Modern Art from 1949-1968.
D'Harnoncourt was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1901. He left Austria for Mexico in 1925, and began working for American, Frederick Davis, who owned a shop that sold Mexican antiquities and folk art in Mexico City. At this time, d'Harnoncourt made many important connections, including meeting American Ambassador to Mexico, Dwight Morrow, and his wife, Elizabeth Morrow. D'Harnoncourt illustrated several books in the early 1930s, including The Painted Pig (1930) and Beast, Bird and Fish (1933), both written by Elizabeth Morrow, and The Hole in the Wall (1931) and Mexicana: A Book of Pictures (1931). According to Sarah d'Harnoncourt, her husband considered himself an amateur in the field of book illustration, which he enjoyed as a means of self-amusement.
In 1929, d'Harnoncourt was asked to curate an extensive exhibition of Mexican art to travel to major cities in the United States, sponsored by the American Federation of Arts. D'Harnoncourt toured with this exhibition, Mexican Art, for two years, beginning at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in October, 1930.
D'Harnoncourt visited Austria briefly in 1932, then returned to the United States in 1933 and married Sarah Carr the same year. He became a naturalized United States citizen in 1939.
Between 1933 and 1944, d'Harnoncourt directed the radio program "Art in America," organized by the American Federation of Arts in cooperation with the Museum of Modern Art. He also taught art history at Sarah Lawrence College from 1934-1937. In 1936 he began working for the Indian Arts and Crafts Board of the Department of the Interior, becoming General Manager in 1937, and the Board's Chairman in 1944. As General Manager he curated an exhibition on Indian art for the San Francisco Golden Gate International Exposition in 1939, and installed an expanded version of the exhibition, Indian Art of the United States, as guest curator for the Museum of Modern Art in 1940-1941.
In 1944, d'Harnoncourt joined the Museum of Modern Art as Vice President in charge of Foreign Activities, focusing his work on Latin America, and as Director of the Department of Manual Industries, responsible for the preservation of Native American art and culture. In 1949 he was appointed Director of the Museum of Modern Art, and served in this capacity until his death in an automobile accident in 1968.