MANCHESTER-BY-THE-SEA — Gail and Ernst von Metzsch are the kind of art collectors who purchase paintings serendipitously. If they come across a canvas that speaks to them, they’ll buy it.
“Ernst will say, ‘I’m just going to a gallery, I won’t buy anything,’ and then six weeks later, when the show closes, a package will arrive,” Gail says.
Ernst, 77, started picking up a painting here and there in the 1970s, before he met Gail, 65. Together, they have built a vibrant collection of artworks, notably local in its focus on contemporary Boston-area artists and landscapes. “As We See It: The Collection of Gail and Ernst von Metzsch,” at the New Britain (Conn.) Museum of American Art through Jan. 8, spotlights more than 80 works by close to 30 artists from their collection.
It celebrates the collectors’ love of warm tones and painterly realism, from George Nick’s fiery, ephemeral landscapes to Paul Rahilly’s painstakingly composed still lifes and nudes.
The couple, who live in a home with picture windows overlooking the ocean, didn’t set out to collect Boston art. They didn’t even realize their collection had that focus until Douglas Hyland, former director of the New Britain Museum, pointed it out to them as “As We See It” began to take shape.
Examine their motivations for buying art, and you’ll see why they buy local. They cherish their relationships with painters.
“This extraordinary collection . . . is specific to select artists in an in-depth and focused manner,” says Min Jung Kim, who took over from Hyland as director of the museum last year. “They have really supported many of the artists throughout their careers, developing personal relationships with them, following their lives and techniques.”
“Making a painting is very hard,” observes Ernst. “And to do it in a consistent manner. We look at one painting of a painter, and connect them to the others over time.”
Painter Steve Hawley met the couple about 15 years ago, when a friend brought Ernst to his Newburyport studio. The von Metzsches visit regularly to keep tabs on what he’s up to, and they commissioned him to paint portraits of two of their children.
“They’re classic patrons of the arts, interested in really participating with the artist, with a real, open sense of excitement,” Hawley says. “And they buy it.”
For one of their first dates, back in the late 1970s, the von Metzsches went to an opening at the Museum of Fine Arts. Ernst doesn’t remember them discussing the paintings.
“With art, there’s not all that much to talk about,” he says. The art, in short, speaks directly to the viewer; the viewer’s job is to take it in.
Growing up in Holland, Ernst visited the Rijksmuseum twice a year with his mother; she took up painting later in life. Ernst came to the United States in 1967 to pursue a PhD in geology at Harvard.
In the 1970s, working for the investment firm Wellington Management, he met Stephen D. Paine, a legendary Boston collector who died in 1997. Paine worked there and managed the company’s art collection. He introduced his younger colleague to New England contemporary art. Ernst, who had dabbled in collecting, started his Boston-based collection with a canvas by Richard Sheehan, who painted street scenes and highway underpasses with easy brushwork and sumptuous tones
Now the von Metzsch collection numbers close to 200 pieces.
In 1979, Ernst met Gail, a psychiatric nurse who had grown up in Peabody. They married in 1983, and spent most of that decade tending to their two young children, George and Julia. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the two realized they shared an aesthetic.
“We’d go to trash-and-treasure stores in Rockport or Gloucester, and find Cape Ann artists,” Gail says.
“We bought two big seascapes for $100 each,” says Ernst.
They look for mastery with materials. Earlier this month, their daughter, Julia von Metzsch Ramos, now a professional painter herself, gave Ernst a tube of Phoenician red paint for his birthday. He had taken up painting around the time he and Gail met.
“[Julia] gave me a lecture about what you can do with it, how you use it in different colors,” he says.
Technical know-how, mark-making, glowing colors, and astute composition all play a part in the couple’s taste. They don’t favor abstraction, but they like representational works that push toward the abstract.
In a catalog essay for “As We See It,” Ernst writes of their affection for the palettes of American Impressionists and painters of the Ashcan School. The American Impressionists, and specifically painters of the Boston School, such as Edmund C. Tarbell and Frank Weston Benson, are a strength in the museum’s collection.
“Given the concentration of artists the von Metzsches focus on from the New England area, we could see [their collection] as a continued trajectory of the Boston School artists,” says Kim.
An element of sheer visual and sensual pleasure runs through the collection. They don’t want to put social polemic, angst, or violence up in their dining room.
“I think Lucian Freud is a great painter,” Ernst says. “But his unwashed nudes in an attic in London — I wouldn’t want to live with them all day.”
The collection includes portraits and still lifes, but landscapes and cityscapes take center stage. George Nick has painted a rocky outcropping beside their house.
“Maybe we have a strong identity of place,” Gail says. That, along with befriending artists, is what makes a collector of regional art.
Indeed, the relationships they form far outweigh whatever value a painting has. They have bought work from artists just out of art school, from artists with no gallery representation, and from artists with long-standing, successful careers.
“Collecting art for value doesn’t make any sense,” Ernst says. “If you buy a painting from a living painter, you never waste money, because you’re supporting the artist.”
AS WE SEE IT: The Collection of Gail and Ernst von Metzsch
At New Britain Museum of American Art, 56 Lexington St., New Britain, Conn.. 860-229-0257, www.nbmaa.org