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20 North Main St (also enter on 224 Benefit Street) Providence, RI 02903

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a resource about art and its making

You Should Know Pearl

By Jan Howard

The RISD Museum’s new Café Pearl was dedicated on June 21 with the friends and family of its namesake, Pearl Nathan, in attendance. Born Pearl Gluck in 1913, she was raised in uptown Manhattan and remembers museums being a part of her early life. She studied art history at Barnard College, graduating in 1934. In 1937 she married Ernest Nathan, a German immigrant who also had a deep appreciation of art, and moved to Providence, where they started a family.1

Pearl soon became one of the Museum’s most dedicated advocates, and she has continued in that mission for the past 70 years. In 1946, she began volunteering as a docent, touring children through the museum’s galleries, which she did for decades. She built an impressive personal art library to use in her teaching. Her library recently came to RISD as a gift and its many exhibition catalogues demonstrate her enormous appetite for looking and learning about art.

Pearl and her husband built a remarkable art collection spanning the Renaissance to the present, with strength in modern German prints and drawings. Many of the most important works in the collection are promised as gifts to the Museum including George Grosz’s satirical watercolor Artist and Model (1936), a haunting self-portrait study by Käthe Kollwitz (1911), a penetrating portrait of a woman by Diego Rivera (1946); and a poignant etching of an old man by Rembrandt (ca. 1639)—Pearl’s first purchase, made before she was married.

As the Nathans built their collection, they also supported the purchase of many works of art by the Museum, including a lovely, scientifically accurate depiction of butterflies and a bumblebee by the 17th-century artist Pieter Withoos, and a luscious large pastel of a spilling teacup by contemporary artist Elizabeth Murray. A stylish woman, Pearl also contributed a number of garments to the Museum’s costume and textile collection.

When I first met Pearl, she was in her late 80s and very actively participating in Museum events, as she had been doing for decades, still making strenuous trips to New York to see the museum and gallery shows and even keeping up with the Whitney Biennial. She rarely missed a lecture at the RISD Museum. At 103, she has begun to take things a little slower, but it is still a pleasure to see her at annual programs such as the Langston Hughes Poetry Reading and the Gail Silver Memorial Lecture. She continues to read and learn and teach. Just before the café opening, she alerted me to the work of a major Ecuadorian artist I should have known.

Café Pearl is located in the Pearl and Ernest Nathan Gallery—a gift of the Nathan and Gerson families—just as you enter the Museum from Benefit Street. The highlight of the dedication ceremony was Pearl’s own remarks. Treat yourself to watching her spirited recounting of her early collecting and her hopes for the new café.

Pearl is a remarkable woman, indeed, and we are thrilled to have this legacy of her remarkable devotion to the RISD Museum.


1 . She has three children. Nathan’s son, Alan, serves on the Museum’s Board of Governors, and her daughter, Joan, is a well-known food writer. Click here to read an article Joan wrote about her mother.


Jan Howard
Chief Curator and Houghton P. Metcalf Jr. Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs