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Obituary: Meyer Schapiro (1904-1996)

From: Journal of the History of Ideas
Volume 57, Number 3, July 1996
pp. 547-549 | 10.1353/jhi.1996.0029

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Journal of the History of Ideas 57.3 (1996) 547-549

Meyer Schapiro, University Professor Emeritus at Columbia University, died at home in New York City on Sunday 3 March, at the age of 91. With his death, the worlds of art and learning have lost a legendary figure.

"The humanity of art lies in the artist and not simply in what he represents," Schapiro had declared in his lectures on abstract art. "It is the painter's constructive activity, his power of impressing a work with feeling and the qualities of thought that gives humanity to art." Informing his own life and work, these were the values that enabled him to give such expressive voice to so much of the art of the past and of the present, to articulate the passions of eighth-century Northumbrian manuscript illuminators and Romanesque stonecarvers as well as of the most creative painters of our own century. Schapiro's range as an art historian was universal, for he believed in the universality of art.

Meyer Schapiro was born 23 September 1904, in Siauliai, Lithuania, and emigrated to the United States with his family when he was three. He grew up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, where he was first exposed to art in evening classes taught by John Sloan at the Hebrew Settlement House. He entered Columbia College in 1920 at the age of 16, having won both Pulitzer and New York State Regents Scholarships, and received his AB in 1924. Five years later he submitted his dissertation for the Ph.D., the first in fine arts and archaeology awarded by Columbia. "The Romanesque Sculpture of Moissac," parts of which were published in The Art Bulletin of 1931, opened an entirely new critical perspective on Romanesque art; recognizing its creative and expressive imperatives, Schapiro's study articulated the aesthetic quality of that art as well as situating it historically and culturally with new precision. Supported by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation, he travelled widely in Europe and the Near East in 1926-27, leaving behind a trail of anecdotal legends that continued to be recounted long after by those who met the brilliant young graduate student -- including Bernard Berenson, who compared the eloquence of the "very handsome youth" to Solomon himself.

Schapiro began his teaching career at Columbia in 1928 as a lecturer and rose through the professorial ranks, becoming full professor in 1952; he was named University Professor in 1965 and became University Professor Emeritus in 1973. Throughout his career, he moved between the university campus on Morningside Heights and his home neighborhood in Greenwich Village. Lecturing as well at the New School for Social Research from 1936 to 1952, he reached the larger community of the New York art world, especially the artists, in the years when New York was becoming the most dynamic center of contemporary art. And he brought the artists uptown; auditing and participating in his classes at Columbia, their presence in his classroom seemed to validate his wisdom. At the other end of Schapiro's range were the mathematicians, scientists, and philosophers, in whose worlds he moved with equal confidence and, importantly, enthusiasm.

During the '30s Schapiro's was an important voice of moral balance in the cultural debates of the political left. Although he demonstrated with new insight and undogmatic focus the social bases of art, he insisted on recognizing "its own conditions which distinguish it from other activities." Even as he avidly pursued knowledge -- of history, culture, languages -- Schapiro remained an artist. He talked about pictures as an artist. His criticism was an act of re-creation, as he lovingly reconstructed decisions made by the painter on the canvas; every stroke demanded attention. Choice was important, that freedom of the individual responding to the world around him and to the challenge of his own creation. In the anonymous art of the early Middle Ages Schapiro discovered the artist, the human maker; he intuited the feeling individual responsible for the invention of such expressive form. Distant art took on life and became accessible through his recognition of and insistence on its humanity.

Schapiro's learning was legendary, and yet, however intimidating it may have...


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