When Marianne Deson married in 1946, a newspaper treated her like a debutante, reporting on her turquoise wedding gown and her fuchsia “going away” outfit.
As she followed her then-husband, mathematician Israel Nathan Herstein, to academic postings, she enrolled in an art history course that captivated her.
After settling in Chicago, she opened an art gallery that hosted artist Ed Paschke’s first solo show in 1970.
“I knew he’d make it big,” she later told the Chicago Sun-Times. “Of all the imagists, he was the most individual.”
Five years after that one-man show, Paschke immortalized Ms. Deson in a saucy, neon-tinged portrait that suggests a disco queen. She wears a cantilevered top, a glimpse of fishnet hose beneath — a playful, blue-eyeshadowed Venus in Furs.
“The painting was colorful — I think she was colorful,” said the artist’s son, Marc Paschke.
Ms. Deson, 89, died Sept. 5 at her Chicago home after a brief bout with cancer, according to the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. She was 89.
After her death, the Ed Paschke Art Center paid tribute to Ms. Deson by displaying the portrait on its Facebook page. Ms. Deson donated it to the MCA on its 40th anniversary in 2007.
Paschke’s painting, called “Portrait of a Lady,” illustrates that Ms. Deson was “very upbeat, very nice,” said the artist’s son, a curator and member of the board of the Ed Paschke Foundation in San Francisco and the Ed Paschke Art Center, 5415 W. Higgins. “He wasn’t big on doing portraits or commissions. It was because the person who he did it for was someone he knew and liked.”
Before she arranged his solo exhibit, Paschke was mostly working on group exhibits or doing commissions for Playboy magazine.
“Marianne was instrumental in getting my father established in the ‘gallery’ world,” Marc Paschke said. “Her influence helped him to begin to develop his own public persona, in giving him a place to be free to explore his art, no longer as a member of a larger group but rather as an individual. From that point on until his death in 2004, she remained a consistent, positive voice and supporter of his work.
“He, and all of us, always felt a special affinity toward her in giving him this opportunity,” Paschke said. “She was a fantastic person and great supporter of the arts in Chicago.”
Ms. Deson was born in Uxbridge, Ontario in 1925. Her wedding to Israel Herstein was chronicled in the Canadian Jewish Review. The Hersteins lived for a time in Rome, where she soaked up la bella lingua and Italy’s contemporary art scene. They moved to Chicago, where he joined the faculty of the University of Chicago. They later divorced.
She found Chicago bracing and beautiful — a good fit for an opinionated, vivacious, intelligent woman.
“She was definitely a steak-and-Scotch woman,” said a friend, Carol Parden, trustee of her estate.
In the mid-1960s, Ms. Deson became one of the city’s few female gallery owners. She opened Marianne Deson Gallery on Ontario Street, unveiling works by artists who went on to renown, like Enrico Baj of Italy.
“She was the first American dealer to show Gerhard Richter,” Parden said, back when the German artist’s pieces were selling in the $10,000-to-$15,000 range.
Today, Parden said, his work goes for “millions, millions and millions.”
“She had an eye,” said HelynCQ Goldenberg, longtime Midwest chair of Sotheby’s. “Now he’s one of the most famous artists in the world.”
Ms. Deson used her gallery to do good. She hosted a 1986 auction, “Artists go to Bat,” featuring depictions of Chicago Cubs to raise money for victims of domestic violence. When AIDS began picking off members of the art world, she started the group Friends Against AIDS, which helped support a pediatric HIV clinic at the University of Chicago hospitals.
Everyone seemed to turn when she entered a room, said Lisa Key, the MCA’s chief development officer. Ms. Deson owned smashing leather jackets, purses and shoes. She wore them together in monochromatic ensembles of head-to-toe purple or green. Her hair, dyed jet black, was piled atop her head.
Every gift she made to the MCA was dedicated to her Eastern European immigrant parents, Samuel and Sarah Deson. Her mother appreciated art and played the piano. After one of his brothers was sent to Siberia for a supposed infraction lost to the years, Samuel Deson “scooted out of Romania sometime around 1921,” said Ms. Deson’s brother, Harvey. Their father worked as a chicken wholesaler and went on to own hotels.
Later in life, Ms. Deson operated a consulting business that advised buyers on art purchases.
She is also survived by another brother, Ronald. A Chicago memorial is being planned.