Earl A. Powell 3d, director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, was there. Glenn D. Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, was there. James N. Wood, director of the Art Institute of Chicago, was there. And so were the heads of many more of the nation's art museums, as well as a few dozen assorted curators and museum trustees, art history professors and gallery owners, all graduates of Williams College and all gathered for a gala evening at the school's faculty club.
With the trees outside drenched in brilliant yellows, oranges and reds, it looked as if a large swath of the art world had fled city life for bucolic New England.
And so it had. But these art powers had another purpose in mind as well. The group, known as the ''Williams art mafia,'' had come to celebrate the 90th birthday of their godfather, S. Lane Faison Jr. With his contagious love for art, Mr. Faison, now professor emeritus, had years ago transformed a band of would-be doctors and bank presidents into art history majors, leaving an indelible mark on the field.
''I came to be a pre-med student and ski,'' recounted Mr. Lowry, describing his conversion in a toast to Mr. Faison. One Saturday in the early 1970's, while mounting slides in the college museum to earn spending money, Mr. Lowry was interrupted by insistent pounding on the door by a woman who wanted to see the museum, which had closed for the day. He had just turned her away when along came Mr. Faison, offering a personal tour.
''Off we galloped,'' Mr. Lowry said. ''We spent hours there, and I was transformed. It was magical, the enthusiasm that Lane brought to looking, and it was then that I knew there could be nothing more noble or significant than this pursuit.''
Similar stories were told again and again at the dinner Friday night and in separate interviews with former students of Mr. Faison and the two slightly younger professors emeriti, Whitney S. Stoddard, 84, and William H. Pierson Jr., 86, who together made this elite liberal arts college into a fount of art professionals.
Among them, in addition to Mr. Powell, Mr. Lowry and Mr. Wood, are Thomas Krens, director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, John R. Lane, who until recently was director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and Robert T. Buck, former director of the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
Mr. Faison's own epiphany came a bit earlier in life, and it proved to be life-shaping for him and for Williams College. At 16, while spending a year living in Switzerland with his family, he was visited by a high school teacher who volunteered to show him France. One day they went to Chartres. Though he knew no art history, he was sent inside the cathedral to view it on his own. ''I haven't been the same since,'' Mr. Faison said in an interview.
Mr. Faison was not simply enthralled. At Chartres, he learned the power of observing the object, and the importance of training the eye instead of stressing the memorization of places, dates and abstract theory, the more standard pedagogy. As he taught, beginning in 1936, after earning a bachelor's degree from Williams and master's degrees from Harvard and Princeton, he made connoisseurship his hallmark.
To hear his former students tell it, Mr. Faison used the familiar slide projections, but his passion for the object affected his words and infected his listeners. It colored the way art history is taught at Williams, where Mr. Faison was department chairman from 1940 to 1968 and a full-time faculty member until 1976. He was also director of the college's museum, which claims a collection of 11,000 objects spanning the history of art. Art history classes here almost always take place in the college's museum.
''We were surrounded by real objects, and we'd pass the objects around,'' said David P. Tunick, a prominent Manhattan art dealer who also started out pre-med. Catherine Vare, who attended Williams in the 80's and is now director of museum and corporate services at Christie's, recalls many field trips to museums in Boston and New York.
At many other schools, art history majors get little or no museum experience, and rarely are students as intimate with the works.
Mr. Faison also devised unusual assignments. Mr. Tunick remembers having to compare the novel ''Tom Jones'' with a Hogarth painting, and Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., the National Gallery curator who organized its landmark Vermeer exhibition two years ago, recalls having to compare the experience of viewing a painting with that of viewing a reproduction of the work.
In his classes, Mr. Faison regularly turned works of art upside down, sideways and backward for study, partly to see whether the composition held together. ''I do that with my students now,'' said Franklin Kelly, who did graduate work at Williams and now teaches at the University of Maryland (as well as being a curator at the National Gallery of Art).
Mr. Kelly, who earned his Ph.D. at the University of Delaware, deploys other teaching tactics from his days here as well. ''I make my students stand in front of an object and talk to people about it -- that's another Williams thing,'' he said. ''We are so visually overloaded that we expect to get everything in a flash, but making students talk makes them slow down, because they usually start by describing everything in the painting.''
A Nagging Doubt: Is Art Manly?
Consciously or not, Mr. Faison, Mr. Stoddard and Mr. Pierson also addressed the unstated doubts of adolescent men that art might not be a manly concern (Williams began to admit women only in 1970). ''One thing that was special here was that art was such a regular thing to do,'' said Mr. Wheelock, one of the few who came to Williams knowing he wanted to enter the art world. ''It wasn't a weird thing.'' The three professors cheered on sports teams, dropped by fraternity parties and were, Mr. Tunick said, ''men's men.''
Like many beloved teachers, Mr. Faison took a keen interest in his students after graduation by helping them get jobs and writing references. He also gave frank, if somewhat self-enhancing, advice to the likes of Mr. Powell, still another former pre-med major, who switched to art after barely passing the first semester of introductory chemistry. After graduation and a stint in the Navy, Mr. Powell considered going to architecture school and asked Mr. Faison for a reference. But as Mr. Powell told it, the reference was not forthcoming. '' 'That's stupid,' he told me,'' said Mr. Powell. '' 'You should go into art history. It's the only thing you were ever good at.' ''
Though so many of his students now run museums (technically, it is those who graduated in the 1960's and early '70's who are known as the ''mafia'') or are curators, Mr. Faison said he was never interested in the museum business. At Harvard, he avoided the classes taught by Paul Sachs, whose students from the 1930's and 40's dominated the previous generation of museum directors.
''I was going to be a teacher,'' he said, wearing relentlessly tweedy clothes and his perpetual bow tie and looking, with a slight smirk and twinkle, as if he was about to create mischief. In fact, although Mr. Faison has written a few books and many articles, he is not known as an authority on any artist or period.
More simply, he proposed, ''people say I opened their eyes.'' Mr. Faison insists he never intended to dispatch so many students to the top of the museum world, and he is quick to cite graduates who teach art history, like James Morgenstern at Ohio State University and Paul Hayes Tucker at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, or run galleries, like Mr. Tunick and Maxwell Davidson, another Manhattan dealer.
Some quibblers, of course, are not pleased that so much of the art establishment is in the hands of an elite group of white, mostly Anglo-Saxon Protestant men, all from the same small college. Mr. Faison has only one word in response. ''Tough,'' he said.
As Williams has become somewhat more diverse in recent years, a few more varied faces have potential to be made members of the mafia: Lucinda Barnes, curator of collections at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, for example.
But even Williams's president, Harry C. Payne, is reluctant to predict that Williams graduates will continue to dominate. ''A remarkable moment of the 60's led to the situation now,'' he said. Williams believes it has the highest concentration of art history majors of any liberal arts school in the United States: more than 8 percent. But Mr. Payne said he did not know whether the mafia ''is sustainable.''
At the gala dinner, a few members poked fun at the phenomenon. Rising to toast Mr. Faison, E. Roger Mandle, president of the Rhode Island School of Design, announced that he had come dressed for the part, in a black suit with wide pinstripes, a black shirt and a white tie.
By his own admission, Mr. Faison's own family did not succumb to his enthusiasm. None of his four sons chose art as a profession. ''But I got two teachers out of it,'' he countered, along with a psychological counselor and an investment manager.
Still, he did convert his wife of 62 years, who died in January. When they met, and he told her what he did, she replied, ''Oh, art history -- I hate it,'' Mr. Faison recalled. Later, he said, he found out she had a marvelous eye: ''I changed my opinion many times because of her.''