Mrs. Hewitt and her husband, John H. Hewitt Jr., met in 1949 in Atlanta. Both were faculty members at historically black colleges: he taught English at Morehouse College, and she was a librarian and teacher at what was then Atlanta University. They married later the same year.
“We both had an appreciation for art going back to childhood,” Ms. Hewitt told the Washington Post in 2000. “I loved the reproduction of ‘The Gleaners’ by Millet that was in my Pittsburgh , and John grew up in New York City, with all the museums and cultural life, and we were also lucky enough to go to public school back when they still had strong art programs.
Their collection began to take shape after they moved to New York in 1951, when there were still echoes of the Harlem Renaissance, a flowering of African-American culture in the 1920s and 1930s. Ms. Hewitt worked as librarian for the Rockefeller Foundation, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and finally the Council on Foreign Relations. Her husband became a medical journalist.
John Hewitt’s sister operated an art gallery in Harlem, and Mrs. Hewitt’s cousin, Eugene Grigsby, was an artist and teacher. The couple’s home on Sugar Hill in Harlem became an informal living room, and they developed friendships with artists such as Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, Hale Woodruff, Ernest Crichlow and Jonathan Green. In many cases, the Hewitts acquired the artists’ works before they became known.
Despite limited means, the Hewitts began collecting prints and paintings in Henry Ossawa Tanner, who studied with Thomas Eakins in Philadelphia, moved to Paris in 1891 and became one of the first internationally renowned African-American artists. During their travels in Haiti, the Hewitts purchased works by local artists. They went to Mexico, where Washington-born artist Elizabeth Catlett — who had been part of the Harlem Renaissance — had settled.
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“It was a sacrifice,” Ms. Hewitt told the Post. “But we just had a passion for art. We bought what we liked, instinctively, intuitively.
The Hewitts’ artistic tastes were rather conservative, generally favoring figurative works, including portraits, landscapes, and interior scenes. They largely focused on New York-based artists and did not collect works by black abstract painters such as Sam Gilliam or Alma Thomas.
“We bought with our hearts the things that moved us and that we loved,” Ms. Hewitt told the Baltimore Sun in 2004. thing from his own past.”
In the late 1970s, the Hewitts began mounting occasional exhibitions in their home and offered advice to others looking to acquire art on a budget. They eventually amassed over 500 items, their collection becoming one of the largest in the country devoted to black artists.
The Hewitts decided they wanted to keep the core of their collection intact, instead of selling pieces individually. In 1998 they sold several of their major works to Bank of America. More than 50 of these paintings, drawings and prints were shown to the public during a two-year tour of museums across the country. The bank then donated the acquisitions to the Gantt Center, which calls the Hewitt collection the “cornerstone” of its permanent holdings.
Vivian Ann Davidson was born on February 17, 1920 in New Castle, Pennsylvania. Her father was a skilled laborer and butler, and her mother had been a teacher.
Ms. Hewitt graduated in 1943 from Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, then earned a degree in library science a year later from Carnegie Library School in Pittsburgh. (It is now part of the University of Pittsburgh, but at the time was affiliated with what is now Carnegie Mellon University.)
She became the first African American librarian in the Pittsburgh Public Library System before moving to Atlanta. Ms. Hewitt held leadership positions with the Special Libraries Association and retired in the 1980s.
Her husband died in 2000. Their son, John H. Hewitt III, died in March. Survivors include two granddaughters and 10 great-grandchildren.
Ms Hewitt said she and her husband lived frugally, saving their money to add to their art collection.
“I told my husband, ‘Don’t give me a sweeper or a dishwasher,'” she said in a 2001 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “’These are practical things. If you want to give me something, give me a painting. ”