Jan Fontein, historian of Asian art and former MFA director, dies at 89

Dr. Fontein helped install the "Money Tree" in the exhibition "Stories from China's Past" in July 1987.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Dr. Fontein helped install the "Money Tree" in the exhibition "Stories from China's Past" in July 1987.

As a boy growing up in the Netherlands, Jan Fontein found his calling as a museum director and art historian when he chanced upon an exhibit of ancient artifacts that animated his imagination.

“When I was 8 years old, I was taken to a museum in Holland which focused on Roman antiquities. I have a very vivid recollection of that moment,” he told the Globe in 1985. “I saw a dirty old case filled with flint arrowheads. That sounds dull. But I saw the arrowheads as direct messages to me. I envisioned a battle in all its mad glory.”

The arrowheads “were not works of art,” he added. “They were simple, humble objects. But they were a way for me to communicate with the past. That was exciting.”


While serving from 1975 to 1987 as director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Dr. Fontein shared his enthusiasm about art and ancient centuries with hundreds of thousands of visitors who poured into the blockbuster shows that the MFA staged. He also ushered the institution into the modern era of museums as cultural marketplaces, overseeing the fund-raising and creation of the I.M. Pei-designed west wing that included expansive shops, restaurants, auditoriums, and galleries.

Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
A look at the news and events shaping the day ahead, delivered every weekday.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Dr. Fontein, a renowned Asian art curator and historian who restored the MFA to solid financial footing when he took over after a period of internal strife at the museum, died May 19 in The Stone Institute skilled care facility in Newton Upper Falls, not far from his Newton Highlands home. He was 89 and had been treated for Parkinson’s disease and other illnesses.

As the MFA’s director, Dr. Fontein guided the museum with “his leadership, the depth and breadth of his learning, and his discriminating taste and judgment,” Seymour Slive, the late Harvard University art historian, wrote in an introduction to the 1987 book “Art for Boston: A Decade of Acquisitions Under the Directorship of Jan Fontein.”

Dr. Fontein will be remembered “as one of the great directors of the Museum of Fine Arts,” the MFA’s three presidents during his tenure – Howard W. Johnson, Lawrence E. Fouraker, and Richard D. Hill – wrote in the book’s preface.

The MFA added more than 10,600 objects to its permanent collection while Dr. Fontein was director, including some 3,600 that were purchased, Slive wrote. Dr. Fontein also directed renovations for the Evans Wing and Museum School.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Dr. Fontein stood in the European Small Paintings Gallery.

The $14 million west wing stands as Dr. Fontein’s lasting physical legacy. While it was being built in the late 1970s, the museum opened a branch in the Faneuil Hall Marketplace that kept overall annual attendance level, despite the construction.

In 1981, the west wing opened and housed the Graham Gund Gallery, the Remis Auditorium, and a spacious gallery for traveling shows. The wing’s restaurant, café, gift shop, and auditorium – complete with a movie screen – drew visitors whose spending contributed to the MFA’s finances. “It’s Quincy Market uptown,” Dr. Fontein quipped in 2002. A hands-on director, he worked at the wing’s front desk on opening day, handing out brochures and fielding questions from visitors.

Another significant legacy was the more than $60 million that was raised during his tenure for construction and the MFA’s endowment.

When Dr. Fontein became director, the MFA was losing hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. Several blockbuster shows that were staged on his watch, among them “Pompeii,” “Pissarro,” and “Renoir,” ensured that the museum would remain financially healthy.

“I believe in private enterprise, and this is private enterprise in the arts,” he told the Globe in September 1986, when he announced that he would step down as director the following summer.


Born in Naarden, the Netherlands, Jan Fontein was the middle child of three siblings. His mother was the former Aaltje Brands. His father, Leonardus Hendrikus Fontein, directed a rehabilitation facility. His relatives were active in the resistance while German forces occupied the Netherlands during World War II, and for safety reasons Dr. Fontein’s family sent him to work on a farm in a northwest province.

He later served in the Dutch Navy and attended Leiden University, where he studied Southeast Asian archaeology, along with Chinese and Japanese language and history, and graduated with a doctorate. Dr. Fontein was fluent in “Chinese, Indonesian, Korean, French, German – the list goes on,” said his son Arnout of Somerville. “And if he didn’t speak them, he could certainly read them. Of course, if you’re Dutch, nobody speaks Dutch, so you’d better learn some languages.”

Dr. Fontein told the Globe he was drawn to the “quiet and understated” nature of Asian art. “It’s not ostentatious,” he said. “Simplicity has serenity that’s reflected in the Japanese tea ceremony. The ritual is complicated and it has only to do with a cup of tea. But the movements are so beautiful you transcend yourself in the motions. Quietness is uplifting. Quietness is rooted in spiritual beauty.”

He also became an authority on Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist temple. The 9th century monument is in Indonesia and was the subject of his doctoral dissertation.

While finishing his studies, Dr. Fontein initially worked as an assistant curator at Amsterdam’s Museum of Asiatic Art, which became part of the Rijksmuseum. In the early 1950s, he married Suzanne Heitz, with whom he had two sons, and he used a traveling grant to live with her in Japan for a year. She died in 1998.

In 1966, Dr. Fontein arrived at the MFA as curator of the Asiatic art department. He was appointed interim museum director in 1975 and permanent director the following year. After stepping down in 1987, he became the museum’s Matsutaro Shoriki curator of Asiatic art until 1992, and continued his scholarship and writing. During his tenure as director, the Asian art department was often regarded as the most prestigious in the museum, boosted in part by donations from Japan and elsewhere.

Dr. Fontein liked to travel and to hike, including up New Hampshire’s mountains. During a visit to Borobudur in Indonesia with his other son, Ruurd, of Somerville, Dr. Fontein began discussing the temple and “the next thing I knew, there were about a hundred people trailing us, because he was so enthusiastic,” his son said. “One thing he was very good at was telling a story. That’s when he really came to life.”

In 2002, Dr. Fontein married Yoko Hollis, with whom he traveled extensively. “His intelligence was overwhelming,” she said. “When I look at his library, there are books of poetry, and books in Chinese, and calligraphy. I admired him very much.”

A service will be announced for Dr. Fontein, who in addition to his wife and two sons leaves a brother, Dick, of the Netherlands.

“Eternal paintings, great works of the past, go on forever,” Dr. Fontein told the Globe in 1985.

“Some people lead perfectly happy lives without being moved by a work of art,” he added. “I have no idea why the art world cannot reach these people. For me, art is an essential. When I’m in a strange city, a place I don’t know, I go to a museum. It’s not out of loneliness. It’s just that I feel at home there, comfortable.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at