Florence Meyer Blumenthal, an extraordinary philanthropist and arts patron, organized her own arts foundation in Paris, and donated millions of dollars to established institutions and public charities in America and France.
Born in Los Angeles in 1875 to Eugene and Harriet (Newmark) Meyer, she was the third of eight children. Eugene Meyer was a dry-goods merchant from Strasbourg; his sister married Zadoc Kahn, the Grand Rabbi of France. Harriet Newmark was the daughter of the Los Angeles lay rabbi, Joseph Newmark, who had founded New York’s Elm Street Synagogue before heading west to California in 1851. Florence’s older sisters Rosalie and Elise joined San Francisco’s Jewish elite and married Sigmund and Abraham Stern, nephews of Levi Strauss. Her younger brother Eugene became the president and publisher of the Washington Post.
In 1898, at age twenty-three, she married international financier George Blumenthal. Many of her philanthropic efforts were made in conjunction with her husband. The couple had three homes: a Park Avenue apartment, a large house in Paris, and a villa in the South of France. In 1916, to display their growing art and furniture collection, they moved into a mansion at 50 East 70th Street that was designed to look like a fifteenth-century Italian villa. From 1911 to 1938, the Blumenthals gave three million dollars to Mount Sinai Hospital, one of New York’s prominent German Jewish institutions, including a sum allotted for a wing in memory of their only child, George, Jr., who died as a young boy.
Florence Blumenthal’s generosity extended across the Atlantic as well. In 1919, she initiated her most ambitious charitable endeavor. She organized the American Foundation for French Art and Thought in Paris to discover young French artists, aid them financially, and in the process draw the United States and France closer together through art, thought, and literature. Juries of well-known artists, including Paul Signac and Aristide Maillol, awarded the prizes to fellow painters, sculptors, decorators, engravers, writers, and musicians. For the first few years of the foundation, each artist received six thousand francs a year for two years, but from 1926 until her death in 1930, Blumenthal increased the purse to ten thousand francs a year. From 1919 to 1954, nearly two hundred artists benefited from the foundation’s grants.
In 1925, when George Blumenthal retired, the couple made their house in Paris their primary residence. In 1926, they gave sixty thousand dollars to the Children’s Hospital in Paris; in 1928, one million dollars to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Several years later, George Blumenthal would leave their house on East 70th Street and all of its Roman, Gothic, and baroque art treasures to the Met as well. Their contributions to the Sorbonne in Paris, made over several years, exceeded $250,000. In 1929, the French government presented Blumenthal and her husband with the Legion of Honor in recognition of their altruism.
On September 21, 1930, at age fifty-five, Florence Meyer Blumenthal died of bronchial pneumonia at her home in Paris.
Gauthier, Maximilien. La Fondation américaine Blumenthal pour la pensée et l’art français (1974); Narell, Irena. Our City: The Jews of San Francisco (1981); Obituary. NYTimes (September 22, 1930), 19:4; UJE.
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Siegel, Michele. "Florence Meyer Blumenthal." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 2, 2020) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/blumenthal-florence-meyer>.