John W. Payson ’63 died on October 16, 2016, in Hobe Sound, Florida.
(The following was published in The Portland Press Herald on October 29, 2016:)
John W. Payson, an art lover and philanthropist who once owned and displayed a Vincent van Gogh masterpiece in an out-of-the-way Portland gallery, died Oct. 16. He was 76.
Payson’s family, descended from some of the oldest and wealthiest families in the country, spent their summers in Falmouth Foreside. His mother, Joan Whitney Payson, owned the New York Mets baseball team, and his father, Charles Shipman Payson, was a primary benefactor of the Portland Museum of Art, donating both money and a collection of Winslow Homer paintings to help establish the museum.
John Payson eventually spent most of his time in Hobe Sound, Florida. He had an art gallery in Florida and also established Midtown Payson Galleries in New York, where he represented Paul Cadmus, Jacob Lawrence, Jack Levine, the Walt Kuhn estate and other artists.
Payson inherited most of his mother’s extensive art collection when she died in 1975, and two years later he established the Joan Whitney Payson Gallery of Art at what was then Westbrook College – it later merged with the University of New England – on Stevens Avenue in Portland. There he displayed pieces including “Irises” by van Gogh, which his mother had bought in 1947 for $84,000, although she reportedly balked at the price.
John Payson sold the painting in 1987 for $53.9 million, which stood for more than two years as the record price for a single work of art. The painting is now owned and displayed at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Payson gave away most of the proceeds through the Joan Whitney and Charles Shipman Payson Charitable Foundation he established, with more than $8 million going to the college and the gallery.
Payson also donated Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s “Confidences” and Maurice Prendergast’s “Rhododendrons: Boston Public Gardens” to the Portland Museum of Art, and the foundation named for his parents helped support the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath and the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, where he served as chairman of the board of trustees from 1981-1988.
He also served on the board of the Portland Museum of Art, the President’s Advisory Committee on the Arts at the Kennedy Center and a number of boards and committees for the arts and conservation in Florida.
“John Payson was an extraordinarily generous benefactor whose gifts to the Portland Museum of Art lifted our collection to a new level and enriched Maine citizens’ understanding of European art,” Dan O’Leary, the former director of the Portland Museum of Art, said in an email Friday night.
“But perhaps the most impressive quality of this man was not his very considerable generosity, but rather his unaffectedness,” O’Leary said. “Although he was born into one of America’s most elite families, John Payson always remained friendly, sympathetic and humane towards everyone. I believe that he always treated anyone he met or spoke to with the same sense of respect and concern, regardless of wealth or social status.”
Payson attended Bowdoin College and received a bachelor’s degree from Pepperdine University in California. He was awarded an honorary doctorate of fine arts from the Maine College of Art and an honorary doctorate of laws from Pepperdine.
In addition to his devotion to the arts, Payson loved vintage cars and organized several car shows in Florida. He also enjoyed wing shooting, fishing, sailing and motor sports.
Payson is survived by his wife, Joanne; their daughter, Joan Whitney Payson; a daughter, Heather Lee Payson, and a son, Charles Sherwood Payson, from a prior marriage; three grandchildren and two sisters.