Charles S. Moffett, a curator who reframed scholarly understanding of the Impressionists and their era in exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery and other major museums, died on Thursday at his home on Fishers Island, N.Y. He was 70.
The cause was pancreatic cancer, said his wife, Lucinda Herrick.
As a young curator at the Met, Mr. Moffett produced a string of impressive exhibitions, starting in 1973 with “Van Gogh as Critic and Self-Critic,” a one-room show that introduced visitors to the artist’s way of thinking by showing the works he liked and loathed, and why.
Two blockbusters followed: “The Impressionist Epoch,” organized in partnership with the Louvre Museum, and “Monet’s Years at Giverny: Beyond Impressionism.” In 1983, he organized the New York version of “Manet: 1832-1883,” the most comprehensive show of the artist’s work ever seen in the United States and, according to John Russell, writing in The New York Times, “one of the great exhibitions of the age.”
At the National Gallery of Art, where he was the senior curator of paintings in the late 1980s and early 1980s, Mr. Moffett mounted important exhibitions on Paul Gauguin and Cézanne. After being appointed director of the Phillips Collection in Washington in 1992, he organized small-scale, jewel-like Impressionist exhibitions that dealt with specific works or themes: “The Impressionists in Winter: Effets de Neige” and “Impressionists on the Seine: A Celebration of Renoir’s ‘Luncheon of the Boating Party.’ ”
“Charlie’s name will remain synonymous with Impressionism for a long time, so masterly were his exhibitions and catalogs,” Philippe de Montebello, the former director of the Met, said at an event at the museum on Thursday night.
In 1998, Mr. Moffett joined the wave of museum curators putting their expertise at the service of the major auction houses. As executive vice president and vice chairman of Impressionist, Modern and contemporary art at Sotheby’s, he played a crucial role in some of the biggest art sales of recent years. In 2012, on behalf of a client, he placed the winning bid of $119.9 million for “The Scream,” by Edvard Munch, making it the single most expensive work of art ever sold at auction at the time.
Charles Simonton Moffett Jr. was born on Sept. 19, 1945, in Washington, into a Navy family. Moffett Federal Airfield in the Bay Area is named after his grandfather, Rear Adm. William A. Moffett, often called the father of naval aviation, and his father was a career officer. His mother was the former Faith Locke Phelps.
After graduating from St. George’s School in Middletown, R.I., Mr. Moffett earned a bachelor’s degree in English in 1967 from Middlebury College in Vermont. He nourished a deep interest in art dating from the days when his father would park him in the Louvre and other museums for an hour or two as he attended to official duties on visits around the world. He enrolled in the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, earning a master’s degree in 1971, but left before completing his doctoral dissertation.
After working as a Ford Foundation fellow at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, as an expert in 19th-century paintings at the Sotheby-Parke Bernet Galleries, and as the assistant director of H. Shickman Gallery in Manhattan, Mr. Moffett was hired by the Met as a researcher. He went on to become an assistant to John Walsh, the curator of Dutch and Flemish painting. His unfinished dissertation inspired “Van Gogh as Critic and Self-Critic.”
In the late 1970s Mr. Moffett was a curator of a Degas exhibition devoted to works in the Met’s collection and conceived the 1984 exhibition “Van Gogh in Arles,” which put a key period in the artist’s life under the microscope.
“For the first time,” Mr. Russell wrote in his Times review, “drawing is ranked as a full and equal partner with painting in van Gogh’s output, and the interactivity between the two is set out in ways that are only possible when the original work is on the wall and in the right order.”
At the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, where he was curator in charge of paintings, Mr. Moffett returned to the Impressionists with “The New Painting: Impressionism 1874-1886,” a didactic exhibition organized with the National Gallery of Art.
The exhibition originated in a 1974 lecture he had given at the Smithsonian Institution on the original context in which painters like Monet and Pissarro first appeared to the public. Over the years, as he spotted works that had been part of in the eight original Impressionist exhibitions in Paris, he kept notes. Eventually, he was able to show 150 paintings and works on paper, with 38 paintings never seen before in the United States.
“What we have tried to show is that those early shows were more than just exhibitions about Impressionism,” he said in an interview in conjunction with the National Gallery show in 1986. “They were umbrella shows of very wide-ranging, avant-garde work. Degas, for instance, preferred to be known as a ‘realist,’ and to use the word ‘Impressionist’ is to impose a set of criteria on these paintings that isn’t fair.”
Mr. Moffett wrote or contributed to many catalogs that remain standard texts for art historians, notably “The New Painting: Impressionism 1874-1886.” After leaving Sotheby’s last year, he was a private art adviser.
Mr. Moffett’s first two marriages ended in divorce. In addition to Ms. Herrick, he is survived by two children from his first marriage, Kate Moffett and Charles Locke Moffett, an expert on contemporary art at Sotheby’s; and three sisters, Diana Aziz, Faith Low Humann and Sheila Moffett Rubey.
When he left the Phillips Collection for Sotheby’s, Mr. Moffett explained his motives with a lament that spoke volumes about the changing museum world. “I was spending all my time raising money,” he said. “I knew that if I lost contact with works of art, I would dry up and turn to dust and blow away.”