George Norbert Kates (1895-1990)
George Norbert Kates was an internationally recognized authority on Chinese art and culture. Born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1895, he traveled to Europe and Central and South America at a young age due to his father’s successful export business. Constantly exposed to new cultures and languages, he quickly became fluent in French and German. He enlisted in the U.S. Army during World War I, serving first as a medical orderly and later as a translator. His studies in art began at the Columbia University School of Architecture. At Harvard University, he studied under Paul J. Sachs and Langdon Warner, both future members of the Roberts Commission. Kates also took graduate courses in French Renaissance art at Queen’s College, Oxford University, spending several years conducting in-depth research in Parisian archives, museums, castles, and churches.
He utilized his knowledge of European history while working as a cultural consultant to Paramount Pictures. In addition to translating for visiting foreign actors, he advised on the selection of props, costumes, and settings for multiple productions set in Europe.
Paramount Pictures closed its Long Island location in 1931, leaving Kates with no job prospects in the midst of the Great Depression. In a complete departure from his years of studying European art, he accepted a Harvard scholarship to study in China. Arriving in Peking in 1933, he jumped in headfirst. He lived within the Imperial City, shunning contact with the expatriates in the foreign quarter. Every day, he took lessons in Chinese with a language tutor and set about exploring every corner of the Forbidden City. He soon enrolled in Peking University, conducting research using ancient Chinese sources, interviewing princes and eunuchs, and amassing a carefully curated collection of Chinese furniture, rugs, scrolls, and antiques. In 1941, when the threat of war between Japan and the United States made China unsafe, Kates was forced to evacuate. However, he made sure his prized collection accompanied him on his voyage.
During World War II, Kates worked with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in Chongqing, Western China. In March 1945 he was recommended by his former professor, Langdon Warner (who was by this time Special Consultant to the Roberts Commission for China, Japan, Korea, and Thailand), for service with the MFAA in an advisory capacity. On a list of candidates for the position, Warner wrote that Kates was “far better at written and spoken Chinese than anyone on this list; is enthusiastic about China, and gets on perfectly with all ranks of Chinese society.” Kates assisted Monuments Man Maj. Laurence Sickman in his position as a liaison between the U.S. Army, the Chinese Government, and the Roberts Commission. Following his return to the United States, Kates worked as a Linguistic Research Specialist for the United Nations (UN), where he helped draft the Chinese text of the 1945 UN Charter.
Kates remained a passionate devotee of Chinese art and culture for the rest of his life. He published a handful of well-known articles on the subject, including “Prince Kung’s Palace and its Adjoining Garden in Peking” (1940) and “A New Date for the Origins of the Forbidden City” (1942). The Years That Were Fat (1952), a witty and personal memoir of his life in Peking during the 1930s, has been republished as recently as 2015. In 1946 his collection of Chinese hardwood furniture was exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York. Impressed with his knowledge on the subject, the museum hired Kates full-time as Curator of Oriental Art in 1947. Others also took notice of the quality of the collection, including furniture manufacturer Hollis Baker, who recruited Kates to help design a line of Chinese furniture for Americans. During the following years, he worked a series of small jobs as a lecturer before retiring in 1960 and moving to Innsbruck, Austria. He made frequent trips between Austria, Scotland, and the United States before begrudgingly settling in Rhode Island in 1980, forever homesick for China.
George Kates died in Middletown, Rhode Island in 1990.
Photo courtesy of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.