"Death of the Virgin," by Petrus Christus. Amy complained that Poland, who brought ceramics and prints, contemporary and Asian art to the gallery, had turned too much to modern art.
  • "Death of the Virgin," by Petrus Christus. Amy complained that Poland, who brought ceramics and prints, contemporary and Asian art to the gallery, had turned too much to modern art.
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Amy, Anne, and Irene. “If anyone tells you they knew them, they’re lying,” one longtime San Diegan says, when asked about the late Putnam sisters. The wealthy, reclusive spinsters went to and from their Hillcrest mansion at Fourth Avenue and Walnut Street in a curtain-shrouded limousine. Only an occasional citizen glimpsed them. They were zoo visitors, and contributed generously to the Zoological and Humane Societies. They gave money for musicales. In 1938 the sisters began to lavish San Diego with Old Masters. They donated an El Greco; a Goya; a Van Dyck; a glorious Murillo; the Zurbarán Agnus Dei, from which the woolly Lamb of God, bound for sacrifice, gazes helplessly off the canvas at the viewer. For a time after World War II, helped by Putnam contributions, San Diego’s Fine Arts Gallery (since 1978 the San Diego Museum of Art) became the largest holder of Old Masters this side of the Mississippi.

"Young Man with a Cock's Feather in His Cap," by Rembrandt. The Spanish Civil War and the beginning of World War II in Europe liquefied the art market. Old Masters of quality became available at reasonable prices.

Then in the late ’40s, the Gallery’s first director fell out of Amy’s favor. Putnam paintings were no longer donated to San Diego. The sisters’ acquisitions from that time on did not stay in town but instead traveled the nation, on loan to such prestigious institutions as the Metropolitan Museum in New York, Washington’s National Gallery, Harvard’s Fogg, the Art Institute in Chicago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. What happened between Amy and the handsome young gallery director, no one knew. In 1950 San Diego attorney Walter Ames took over the sisters’ affairs and helped them to create the nonprofit Putnam Foundation, a move that would eventually secure all the Putnam paintings for San Diego. Later, through the Timken family of the Timken roller bearing fortune, Ames acquired funds to build the Timken Art Gallery in Balboa Park. That gallery now houses a remarkable collection of art composed exclusively of Putnam purchases.

"Cranberry Harvest," by Eastman Johnson

Twenty years have passed since the last sister was buried, without ceremony, in a Greenwood Cemetery family plot. (Amy wrote in 1950: “I am allergic to funerals, and wish to be sure mine is simple, and that no one sees me.”) The Putnams’ earlier gifts (a total of 115) can still be seen in the San Diego Museum of Art, enriching that gallery’s collection. And the sisters’ gifts continue to radiate throughout the Timken Art Gallery, new purchases by the Putnam Foundation adding yearly to the growing list of Old Masters: the Petrus Christus Death of the Virgin with its angels ascending toward heaven bearing the Virgin’s soul; the Pieter Brueghel Parable of the Sower that beckons the viewer into its luminous, infinite distances; Rembrandt’s St. Bartholomew; a number of distinguished American works, including Eastman Johnson’s celebrated Cranberry Harvest, a Winslow Homer, the Benjamin West Fidelia and Speranza, a Frederic Remington, and a gorgeous melancholy landscape by George Inness.

Timken Art Gallery. Did the women have beaux? The only evidence in Timken files of male attention is an undated poem, “To the Unseen Irene.”

In addition there are more than 300 glittering Russian icons that were Amy’s special delight. The Putnam Foundation, beneficiary of the sisters’ estates, continues to endow the Timken gallery, the only fine art gallery in the area that does not charge an entry fee. The startling contemporary travertine marble and glass, bronze-doored structure sits to one side of the plaza in Balboa Park, in austere contrast to the nearby phantasmagorical Moorish and Mediterranean architecture. With the stylistic difference that keeps other park structures at arm’s length, with its chilly rectilinear simplicity never hinting at the interior’s richness, the building stands as a metaphor for the sisters themselves.

Reginald Poland, c. 1930. The city’s art collection was worth $50,000 when Poland took over, and 25 years later it was worth $7 million.

The Timken gallery also safeguards four file drawers of Putnam paper memorabilia. The quixotic assortment begins with an 1822 letter to the Revolutionary general, Israel Putnam. There are bills for Aubusson draperies, portières, and preparation of tapestry ($1068.03); faded obituaries; Irene’s poems (“With sad face turned aside, lest sudden comers see her weep, / She sits…”); queries to the city of San Diego for a permit to extend the ten-foot fence another few feet after a drunk plowed into the wrought iron with his Chevy sedan; smudged carbons. There are the New York Times and San Diego Union accounts of the sisters’ inheritance from their cousin Willie Putnam, the gift that would change the face of San Diego art. The Union headline reads: “FIVE MILLION BEQUEATHED TO 2 SAN DIEGO WOMEN.” (Sister Irene died prior to the inheritance.)

For a time after World War II, helped by Putnam contributions, San Diego’s Fine Arts Gallery (since 1978 the San Diego Museum of Art) became the largest holder of Old Masters this side of the Mississippi.

The files end with a veritable flood, a deluge, written by Amy from the late ’40s, as Anne’s health began to fail, and ending with Amy’s death in 1958. The letters increase in number and intensity as Amy loses hope for Anne’s memory to be restored, or her health to return. Amy’s misery breaks through her fat scrawl. She begins to write the most far-flung of relations, even third and fourth cousins in Sedro Wooley, Washington. She answers letters from an English family to whom the sisters sent food during World War II, keeping them up on Anne’s decline and her own vicious headaches.

The Putnam sisters. “If anyone says they knew them, they’re lying.”

The majority of this file consists of Amy’s correspondence with Frederick S. Parker, vice president of New York City’s prestigious Guaranty Trust, himself the sisters’ trust officer. The letters are replete with the desolation of Amy’s raw loneliness, as Anne more often hardly recognizes her. These letters, with their coloratura despair, their temper, went out almost daily to Parker, and have been preserved with his often daily, detailed replies to San Diego.

Putnam sisters' home, Fourth Avenue and Walnut Street in Hillcrest, since demolished

The many thousand sheets of paper tell more by absence and by what is not said, than by what is. This extraordinary volume testifies to the greater volume crumpled, tossed, and pitched into fires. (“I have been busy burning letters in the fireplace,” Amy wrote Parker in 1950.) There are parchment informals, engraved laid papers, stiff sheets taken from pigeonholes in club desks, crinkling onionskins and airmail bonds, typed with the Remington and Smith-Corona pica and elite that more than the Spencerian hand poignantly evoke a simpler era. But nothing in the pounds of paper opens the Putnams’ secret hearts. What their longings and disappointments might have been; why they never married; why they disdained San Diego society; why they were reluctant to be seen; how the museum gallery director got into Amy’s bad graces — a peruser of the paper can only guess the answers.

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