Olga Paris Berendsen

Olga Paris Berendsen
December 9, 1916-November 6, 2003

Olga Berendsen is remembered as a beloved and respected Rutgers professor. She was born in Moscow of Estonian parents who, following the Bolshevik Revolution, repatriated to their newly independent homeland. There Olga studied art history at Tartu University (1935-1943). During the academic year 1938-1939 she attended art history classes at the Sorbonne in Paris. Her master’s thesis at Tartu was on neoclassical architect Johann Wilhelm Krause (1757-1828). Together with her mother and sister, Olga fled her native land in 1944 in advance of the Red Army, and survived the fire bombing of Dresden where she had settled with many other refugees from the Eastern Front. After the war (1947-1948) she worked as a German language teacher in an American school at U.S. Army Headquarters in Frankfurt-am-Main. From 1948-1949 she was a resettlement officer for the Lutheran Church World Service in Frankfurt.

In 1949 Olga emigrated to the U.S., where she was employed by the Lutheran Resettlement Service in New York. She entered the graduate program in art history at the Institute of Fine Arts at NYU in 1952 and studied with Richard Krautheimer. In the following year she also took a position as research librarian for the art dealer French & Company, and from 1958 to 1960, worked as assistant curator at the Cooper Union Museum. Her influential dissertation on Italian funeral catafalques of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was one of the earliest major studies of temporary decorations in Baroque art. After completing the Ph.D. in 1961 she joined the art history faculty at Ohio State University. She came to Rutgers in 1965 and established the graduate program in art history, serving as its first Graduate Director beginning in 1970. Olga was inspired by Italian Baroque art, which she admired for its spectacle and its persuasive power. She published studies on Gianlorenzo Bernini and on the Baldacchino in St. Peter’s Basilica. She also wrote books, chapters, and articles on Estonian and Baltic art. Olga retired from the faculty in 1984.

In her professional role Olga was especially a mentor for many women in the graduate program at Rutgers. Her severe bearing, exotic accent, and reputation as a tough taskmaster made a strong impression on students. Anecdotes about her demanding intellectual presence in graduate seminars are plentiful. When she recommended a particularly dense-sounding German book to a student in the legendary Italian ceiling painting seminar, he told her that he did not know that language. Olga seemed puzzled for a few seconds—as though it were unimaginable that someone could suffer from such an unfortunate condition—and then said, “Oh…, well, read it anyway!” It was a defining moment in graduate student acculturation for the seminar participants.

She had no problem providing blunt advice when necessary, yet, notwithstanding her commanding demeanor, students and colleagues who got to know her better discovered a warm-hearted and generous teacher. She somehow managed to be simultaneously strict and welcoming, erudite and down-to-earth, passionate and amusing. In the no less famous catafalque seminar, students celebrated her birthday with a catafalque cake designed according to the principles learned in the course and with a freshly conceived iconographic program. This was one of the few occasions where she was seen to be truly surprised and touched. She was also feared for the slide identifications on her exams, which would always include diabolically difficult details—a partial view of a crucifix held by a Bernini saint, for example. For comprehensive exams students were assured of being challenged with unknown and stylistically hybrid buildings from Eastern Europe. Of course, there are many similarly characteristic anecdotes that cannot be put in print.

Olga’s life in the U.S. was deeply conditioned by her Northern European background and her commitment to maintaining an Estonian identity together with her husband, Olev. The two decades following her retirement from Rutgers were largely devoted to gathering materials related to émigré Estonian artists and the history of Estonian communities, with the goal of preserving the historical record of the Estonian American experience. She directed the Estonian Archives in the U.S., Inc., located in Lakewood, New Jersey, which is now being transferred to the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota.

Although she followed events in the Estonian S.S.R., she vowed never to return to her homeland while it remained under Soviet occupation. Instead, she planned to fly to Finland with the hope of glimpsing one final view of Estonia in the distance as the airplane landed in Helsinki. But the collapse of the Soviet Union made possible in the 1990s several visits to the newly independent Estonia before her failing health prevented international travel. On the first of those visits she re-walked the streets of her childhood in Tartu and was able to visit her first art history professor not long before his death.

Olga is buried in the Estonian plot at Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York. She is survived by her sister, Helga Kutt, of Wyckoff, New Jersey.

John Beldon Scott, Professor of Art History, University of Iowa (Rutgers, PhD, 1982)

The Olga Berendsen Baroque Prize, established in 1984, is awarded annually for an outstanding paper written by a student on a subject from the Baroque period. Winners are chosen by a committee of faculty members teaching courses in the Baroque period at the time of the competition. Contributions to the fund for the prize in her honor should be sent to: Department of Art History, Rutgers University, Voorhees Hall, 71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick, NJ, 08901

Photo by Steve Arbury

Taken from the 2004 Newsletter