Mr. Fontein, a renowned scholar who had organized the important exhibitions “Zen Painting and Calligraphy” in 1970 and “Unearthing China’s Past” in 1973, put the museum on a new course almost immediately.
Under his leadership, the museum presented a canny blend of challenging, specialized exhibitions and crowd-pleasers like “Pompeii A.D. 79” (1978), “Pissarro” (1981) and “Renoir” (1985). “Renoir” alone drew more than half a million visitors, a record for the museum.
At the same time, Mr. Fontein embarked on a building and renovation program, raising $60 million — an enormous sum at the time — to realize it. The new West Wing, designed by I. M. Pei, opened in 1981. (To sustain attendance, a satellite museum was established in Faneuil Hall during construction.) Mr. Fontein also oversaw the renovation of the museum’s storage facilities as well as 26 galleries devoted to the Asian art collection, one of the most extensive in the world.
He brought an affable, unpretentious style to the job, consistent with his own down-to-earth personality and his sense that museums needed to lose some of their stuffiness to attract new audiences.
One of his first acts was to install John Singleton Copley’s painting “Watson and the Shark” in a prominent position just before the movie “Jaws” opened in movie theaters.
“Museums can be monumental structures,” Mr. Fontein told The Boston Globe in 1985. “That can be intimidating.” He added: “Today people should be relaxed in a museum so that they are open to new impressions, new ideas. I believe guards who stand at museum doors should be nice.”
Jan Fontein was born on May 22, 1927, in the Netherlands, in Naarden, about 15 miles east of Amsterdam, to Leonardus Hendrikus Fontein and the former Aaltje Brands. His father was a Montessori teacher and later the director of a rehabilitation center for prisoners near the German border. Both parents became active in the resistance during World War II and as a precautionary measure sent Jan to work on a farm in Friesland, in the northwest.
As a boy, he was fascinated by antiquities. A trip to see Roman artifacts made a deep impression, in particular a glass case displaying flint arrowheads. “That sounds dull,” he told The Globe. “But I saw the arrowheads as direct messages to me. I envisioned a battle in all its mad glory.”
He studied Chinese and Japanese literature at Leiden University, earning an undergraduate degree in 1945. When he learned of a curatorial opening at the Museum of Asiatic Art in Amsterdam (which later became part of the Rijksmuseum), he shifted his focus to fine arts. In 1953 he passed his doctoral exams in Chinese and Japanese art and the art and archaeology of Southeast Asia.
Shortly before leaving for Boston, he completed his dissertation, “The Pilgrimage of Sudhana: A Study of Gandavyuha Illustrations in China, Japan and Java,” about a series of reliefs on the Javanese temple Borobudur. It was published in book form in 1968.
He spent a year studying the tea ceremony in Japan before becoming an assistant curator at the Museum of Asiatic Art. In 1962 he was invited to catalog the Avery Brundage Collection of Asian art and to advise on the design and construction of a wing in the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco to house the collection.
As curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, he acquired South Indian Buddhist bronzes, Korean works in gold and bronze, courtly objects from the ancient kingdoms of mainland Southeast Asia and Javanese masterpieces. He also initiated reciprocal exhibitions to send the museum’s Japanese art to Japan — as he did in a survey of the museum’s collections sent to the Kyoto National Museum in 1972 — and bring the best art from Japanese collections to Boston.
Mr. Fontein’s time as director coincided with the nationwide rise of the blockbuster exhibition, and he embraced the concept. “There was such a thing as a contemplative museum, but I don’t think that can survive anymore,” he told Newsweek in 1978.
Before he retired as director in 1987, the museum played host to such large-scale traveling exhibitions as “Treasures of Early Irish Art” (1978), “5,000 Years of Korean Art” (1980), “The Great Bronze Age of China” (1981) and “The Search for Alexander” (1981). It also organized its own traveling show, “A New World: Masterpieces of American Painting, 1760-1910” (1983).
After retiring, Mr. Fontein was named the Matsutaro Shoriki curator of Asiatic art, a position he held until 1992, and spent two years in Indonesia organizing “The Sculpture of Indonesia,” which traveled to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1991.
He was a consultant to the Asian art collection at the Royal Ontario Museum from 1990 to 1995 and, in a similar role at the Rietberg Museum in Zurich, wrote the catalog for the museum’s collection of Southeast Asian art. After joining the Nieuwe Kerk Foundation in Amsterdam, he organized a series of art exhibitions from China, Thailand and Mongolia, notably the traveling exhibition “The Dancing Demons of Mongolia.”
Mr. Fontein’s first wife, the former Suzanne Heitz, died in 1998. In addition to his wife, the former Yoko Hollis, he is survived by two sons, Arnout and Ruurd, and a brother, Dick.
His books and monographs included “The Law of Cause and Effect in Ancient Java” (1989) and “Entering the Dharmadhatu: A Study of the Gandavyuha Reliefs of Borobudur” (2012).
Continue reading the main story