As a scholar, author, architect and museum director, Fiske Kimball had an insatiable desire to broaden his knowledge of the arts and, in turn, to educate and excite others in those pursuits. The son of an educator, Sidney Fiske Kimball was born in the Boston suburb of Newton, Massachusetts in 1888. Following his graduation from the Lawrence Scientific School of Harvard in 1909, Kimball found his true academic calling when he entered the university's Architectural School. As the recipient of the Sheldon Fellowship, Kimball traveled to Europe to study architecture and in 1912 graduated from Harvard with a master's degree in the same field. By this time, Kimball began what would become a long and prolific career as a researcher and author. In the spring of 1912, he was invited to edit a book on the history of architecture as part of a series of histories of art to be published by Harper. Over the next ten years, Kimball supported his research efforts by teaching architecture and the fine arts at the universities of Illinois, Michigan, and Virginia. At the University of Virginia, he was a professor and head of the department of architecture and fine arts, and he also served from 1921 to 1923 as the university's supervising architect. During these same years Kimball married Marie Goebel of Urbana, Illinois (1913), earned his Ph.D. in 1915 from the University of Michigan and began lecturing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York while still teaching in Virginia. In 1923, Kimball left Virginia to establish the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, and was appointed the university's architect the following year. Over the next thirty years, Kimball published many books and articles and served on various editorial boards and numerous committees related to professional organizations and government agencies. He was involved in several historical restoration projects, the most notable being Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. Assisted by his wife Marie, Kimball pursued his scholarly interest in Jefferson which kept the couple connected to the Charlottesville area well after Kimball left the University of Virginia. In fact, they built a home nearby at Shack Mountain.
In 1925 Kimball accepted the position as director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. As the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin noted at the time of his death, "few have ever made a greater contribution to Philadelphia's culture." When Kimball assumed his directorship, the Museum still operated in Memorial Hall, a Centennial Exhibition structure, and its collection focused on American-made objects with an emphasis on textiles and the industrial arts. Construction of the new building was underway. During his tenure, Kimball oversaw the completion of the building's exterior and a significant expansion of its interior, most of which was accomplished with WPA-sponsored labor. As summarized in a 1955 issue of the Museum's Bulletin, a museum, as conceived by Kimball, should "express the world's artistic culture in all mediums, merging architecture, painting, sculpture and the decorative arts." To that end, Kimball filled the newly built Museum with several period rooms and architectural elements from Europe and Asia, and the collections he brought in were significant in representing art through the ages. With the Foulc collection came important Medieval and Renaissance sculpture, furnishings and artifacts. The Crozier collection brought Oriental art, and the Arensberg and Gallatin collections gave the Museum a significant holding in 20th century art.
To care for these collections, Kimball worked to develop a professional staff of men and women, some of whom went on to assume head positions at other major museums in the United States and in Europe. To all personnel, Kimball passed on his devotion to the Museum and a sense of fairness. As recalled in a Museum Bulletin, Kimball "was preeminent in his relationship with his staff...[giving] credit where credit was due...an inspiring force." As evidenced in his records, Kimball often animated his correspondence with a "Bully!" to signify his approval of a particular action or recommendation. Such commanding enthusiasm complemented his physical appearance of six-foot-one and "of ample girth." Yet Kimball's most notable feature, according to PMA curator Carl Zigrosser, was his "cannonball head." From it "emanated persuasive ideas and an undeviating purpose. He was a titan of directed energy...[which] came from his sense of dedication to the Museum." Kimball's contribution to the Museum was publicly acknowledged when he was named the 1950 recipient of the prestigious Philadelphia Award.
In the end, according to his biographers George and Mary Roberts, Kimball's boundless energy and frenetic work habits apparently overwhelmed him, and in January 1955 he resigned as director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. On March 2, Kimball's wife Marie, to whom he was very devoted, died. Five months later, while traveling in Europe, Fiske Kimball suffered a heart attack and stroke. He died on August 14 in Munich.
Asked to write an autobiographical sketch, Kimball best summarized his work and legacy. In collaboration with the Museum's presidents, an able staff, and with the support of the City and private benefactors, Fiske Kimball saw the institution "emerge from a minor provincial position to become one of the leading museums of America, now not unworthy of comparison with those of Europe."Works Consulted
Fiske Kimball: Master of the Diverse Arts. An Exhibition Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Fiske Kimball Fine Arts Library, September 1995-July 1996. University of Virginia (Charlottesville, VA). 23 Jan. 2003.
Kane, Mary Givens. A Bibliography of the Works of Fiske Kimball. Edited by Frederick Doveton Nichols. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1959).
"The New Director: Fiske Kimball, Ph.D." Bulletin (Pennsylvania Museum of Art) (Oct. 1925):2-3.
Papers of Sidney Fiske Kimball, 1918-1952. Fine Arts Library, Harvard College Library, Harvard University (Cambridge, MA). 23 Jan. 2003.
"Review of the Year Presented at the Annual Meeting: June 13, 1955." Bulletin (Philadelphia Museum of Art) (Summer 1955):51-67.
Roberts, George, 1900- and Mary Roberts. Triumph on Fairmount: Fiske Kimball and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1959).