After working in finance, Thompson eventually got into the steel business. By 1945 he was running four companies in Pittsburgh, Pa.
As his wealth rose, he began collecting art in 1935.
Remembering how Whittenberger had inspired him, Thompson chose to honor his favorite teacher by contributing eight pieces of valuable art to Peru schools in 1938. Several more would arrive in later years.
Thompson’s collection, which can be described as eclectic, began to draw worldwide attention as one of the great private assemblages.
In 1960, Life magazine published a four-page spread titled “A Millionaire Amid His Moderns.” A short story is accompanied by wonderful color photos showing Thompson and a tiny part of his collection.
Thompson’s collection is “the talk of the art world,” Life reported.
“To Thompson, every work of art is a friend,” Life wrote.
One photo shows Thompson standing next to a sculpture of a woman sitting on a flat surface with her legs bent, her arms folded on her knees and her face, unseen, between her arms. Life quotes him as saying:
“Every so often I long for some calmness and serenity and this Maillol seems to fill the need and match my mood. Just looking at it seems to have a therapeutic effect.”
Sculptures were scattered throughout Thompson’s home and grounds, Life reported — on table tops, in terraces, in gardens, in the garage.
By the time Life published its piece, Thompson had built a reputation as a shrewd collector. And, apparently, among some people, as an ornery fellow.
In its Spring/Summer 2006 issue, the Pittsburgh Quarterly published a piece by Graham Shearing, a collector, critic, curator, consultant and writer. The article deals with the great art collections that had been built in the Steel City.
Shearing writes: “… as many collectors are, he [Thompson] was a difficult old cuss.”