Philip Conisbee

3 January 1946, Belfast – 16 January 2008, Georgetown Neighborhood, Washington, DC

Conisbee was a celebrated art historian and museum curator who began his career as a professor in the UK before he was hired by Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts to be an associate curator of French painting. From there, he moved to Los Angeles’s prestigious LA County Museum of Art (LACMA) as curator of European paintings and sculpture. From LA, Dr. Consibee moved to the National Gallery of Art in DC when he was eventually promoted to Senior Curator of European paintings.

In his career, he made several significant acquisitions for his museums and curated wildly popular exhibitions, many focusing on French art and artists. His excellent relationship with his colleagues in France led to the French government awarding him both the Chevalier des Arts et Lettres (2000) and the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur (2004).

He died of lung cancer at only 62 years old.

I knew none of this when I saw his exquisitely simple headstone in West Highgate; I just knew that it was stunning. Now I think it’s stunning not just in its design but in its placement. Dr. Conisbee became a US citizen in 1994, but he chose to be buried in London. Perhaps he chose the location, too, with an eye to placing this slim black obelisk amongst the rough stone and greenery of the wild western side of the cemetery. I like to think he curated this experience himself, at least, as a final installation.

There’s something understated and so elegant about it, the two biographical facts etched below his name and dates taking on extra significance when contrasted with the number of accomplishments that might be listed there. I would interpret these choices as telling — that he thought of himself first and foremost as an art historian and that becoming a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur meant a great deal to him.

RIP Dr. Conisbee

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