Visiting Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion? You must join the virtual exhibition queue when you arrive. If capacity has been reached for the day, the queue will close early.

Learn more

Leigh B. and Mary Lasker (née Foreman) Block

Chicago, 1904—Santa Barbara, 1981, and Chicago, 1905—Santa Barbara, 1987

Beginning in 1942, Chicago-based art collectors and philanthropists Leigh and Mary Block amassed a major collection of eighteenth- to twentieth-century art as well as ancient Chinese and Pre-Columbian ceramics and decorative objects, many of which are today in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, among other institutions. At the same time, the BlockBlocks played a pivotal role in the building and organization of the city’s art institutions and the promotion of European modernism across the Midwest from the 1940s to the 1980s.

Born and raised in Chicago, Mary attended Vassar College before graduating from the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Following her studies, she worked at her father’s advertising agency, Lord & Thomas, as vice-president from 1937 until 1942, when she married Leigh. Likewise born in Chicago, Leigh attended the University of Chicago and, in 1924, joined his family’s firm, the Inland Steel Company, eventually becoming vice-president.

Though she was not yet a collector, Mary had developed a passion for the arts and Leigh, a bibliophile, had assembled a collection of rare first editions and a few Italian Renaissance prints by the time they married. The couple’s wedding in 1942 marked the beginning of their endeavor in collecting art together, which they continued to do at least until the 1970s. Often characterized as a joint endeavor, recent scholarship acknowledges Mary as the driving force in assembling the couple’s art collection. Especially at the beginning, her educational, familial, and professional background proved essential in assessing the art and its market and in building an estimable collection over nearly four decades. Mary’s father, the pioneer advertising executive Albert Davis Lasker, might have served as her inspiration to start a collection; together with his second wife, Mary Woodard Lasker, Albert assembled a broad art collection of nineteenth and twentieth-century painting from canvases by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot to those of Henri Matisse and Adolph Gottlieb. Despite the fact that Mary was the better-informed collector, she and Leigh agreed that all decisions about purchases for and sales from their collection were to be made together.

The guidelines underlying the couple’s collecting efforts were not only depth, but also breadth. On the one hand, this approach led the collectors to assemble numerous significant groupings of works by Pierre Bonnard, Juan Gris, Fernand Léger, Matisse, Jean Miró, Piet Mondrian, Claude Monet, and Vincent van Gogh. On the other, it stirred them into buying exceptional canvases such as Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s vibrant Portrait of a Man in Spanish Costume (1768/70; Art Institute of Chicago) and Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe (1889; private collection; Hulsker 1996, no. 1658). Another part of the Block collection focused on postwar abstract painting and sculpture produced by artists such as Sam Francis, Henry Moore, George Rickey, and Maria Helena Vieira da Silva.

The first acquisition the Blocks made was a 1928 still life by Georges Braque, which became the cornerstone of an impressive group of at least eleven works that span five decades of the artist’s production. Their comprehensive collection of Braque canvases was matched in depth by their group of paintings and drawings by Pablo Picasso, evidence of their sincere appreciation of Cubism. Comprised of at least twelve works, their Picasso holdings ranged from a 1900 drawing to a 1963 portrait of the artist’s second wife, Jacqueline Roque. It also included two Cubist masterpieces: Picasso’s 1912 The Scallop Shell: “Notre Avenir est dans l’Air” and Playing Cards, Glasses, Bottle of Rum: “Vive La France” of 1914-15 (both The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Promised Gift from the Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Collection). Installed together in Mary’s study with other Cubist works by Braque and Gris—including the latter’s The Man at the Café (1914; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Promised Gift from the Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Collection)—these two paintings bracket a period known as Synthetic Cubism, when Picasso and Braque reintroduced bold colors and lettering into their work.

More often than not, the Blocks acquired works from art dealers rather than directly from artists. When they traveled across Europe, they met with Heinz Berggruen, Ernst Beyeler, Pierre Colle, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, and Jacques Lindon among others to acquire new works. In New York, they regularly frequented galleries such as those of Pierre Matisse, Valentine Dudensing, Sidney Janis, Paul Rosenberg, Sam Salz, and Curt Valentin. Indeed, they may have made their first joint purchase—Braque’s Still Life with Pears and Goblet (Glass and Fruits) (1928; private collection; Mangin 1962, no. 10)—at Rosenberg’s New York gallery. It is noteworthy that the Blocks dealt little if at all with Eleanore Saidenberg, Leigh’s sister, who ran the eponymous gallery on Madison Avenue together with her husband and specialized primarily in European modernism. By 1952, the year Life magazine featured the couple in a story about rising Chicagoan collectors, the collection had grown to encompass ninety-two paintings and works on paper and twenty-three sculptures. Throughout their collecting years, the Blocks also sold important works that later entered other institutions such as Braque’s Still Life with Banderillas (1911; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Perhaps the most significant sale of works from their collection was Leigh’s auction at Sotheby’s on May 20, 1981.

During their lifetime, Mary and Leigh made generous gifts of both artworks and funds to numerous art institutions. The Art Institute of Chicago was one of the major beneficiaries of their donations, receiving in 1958, for example, Gris’s Portrait of Pablo Picasso (1912). Mary and Leigh each became a member of the museum’s board of trustees in 1949 and 1955 respectively and, going forward, served the institution in multiple capacities: Mary, for example, was integral to the formation of the Women’s Board of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1952 and Leigh served as the museum’s president from 1970 to 1972 and as its chairman from 1972 to 1975. In 1980, Mary and Leigh also donated funds to Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, for an art institution known today as the Block Museum of Art.

For more information, see:

100 European Paintings & Drawings from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Leigh B. Block. Exh. cat. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1967.

Feigen, Richard. “Mary and Leigh Block.” In Tales from the Art Crypt: The Painters, the Museums, the Curators, the Collectors, the Auctions, the Art. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000, pp. 247–73.

Hulsker, Jan. The New Complete van Gogh: Paintings, Drawings, Sketches: Revised and Enlarged Edition of the Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of Vincent van Gogh. Philadelphia: John Benjamins Pub. Co., 1996.

Du Plessix, Francine. “Collectors: Mary and Leigh Block.” Art in America 54 (September-October 1966): 64–66, 71–72.

Mangin, Nicole S. Catalogue de l'œuvre de Georges Braque, vol. 4, Peintures 1928–1935. Paris: Maeght Éditeur, 1962.

Simpson, Mary Caroline. “Modern Art Collecting and Married Women in 1950s Chicago. Shopping, Sublimation, and the Pursuit of Possessive Individualism: Mary Lasker Block and Muriel Kallis Steinberg Newman.” Women’s Studies 39, no. 6 (September 2010): 585–621.

How to cite this entry:
Mahler, Luise, "Leigh B. and Mary Lasker (née Foreman) Block," The Modern Art Index Project (September 2018), Leonard A. Lauder Research Center for Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A slider containing 3 items.
Press the down key to skip to the last item.
The Scallop Shell: "Notre Avenir est dans l'Air", Pablo Picasso  Spanish, Enamel and oil on canvas
Pablo Picasso
Paris, spring 1912
The Man at the Café, Juan Gris  Spanish, Oil and newsprint collage on canvas
Juan Gris
Paris, winter–spring 1914
Playing Cards, Glasses, Bottle of Rum: "Vive la France", Pablo Picasso  Spanish, Oil and sand on canvas
Pablo Picasso