University of Hawai'i Press
  • Harrie A. Vanderstappen, S.V.D. (1921–2007)

From 1959 until his retirement in 1991, Harrie Vanderstappen taught the history of Chinese and Japanese art in the Department of Art at the University of Chicago, where he had earned an M.A. in 1951 and a Ph.D. under the direction of Ludwig Bachhofer (1894–1976) in 1955. After teaching in Frankfurt, Germany, and Nagoya, Japan, he was offered his former teacher's position. His interests in East Asian art were extraordinarily broad, and he supervised students who worked on sculpture, bronzes, scroll painting, mural painting, prints, ceramics, calligraphy, and gardens of China, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, Tibet, and the Himalayas. In 1985, he received the College Art Association of America's Distinguished Teaching of Art History Award.

Vanderstappen was one among the post-war generation of art historians who had training in Chinese and Japanese, and though he based his approach to art on the meticulous analysis of style that he learned from Bachhofer, he emphasized equally the importance of reading documents and secondary scholarship in the primary languages. He said he learned as a youth growing up in a country whose language relatively few people spoke. "If you don't have languages, you've got nothing." I remember vividly the experience of hearing him casually read from the work of Osvald Siren in the original Swedish! Published in Monumenta Serica (v. 15 and 16), his dissertation, "Painters at the Early Ming Court (1368–1435) and the Problem of a Ming Painting Academy," was the first work in the West to investigate the government institutions that had such a profound impact on the history of Chinese art. For many years, he was the editor of Monumenta Serica, and in 1995, the journal published a festschrift volume in his honor.

In class, Vanderstappen taught that to understand a work of art, students had to have Sitzfleisch, which to him meant the ability to look at the artwork, sticking to the job of looking at it closely and repeatedly, until the thing would reveal its story. Once they correctly perceived the visual evidence, then they should describe it in such precise language that the point is made clear and little argument is necessary. Vanderstappen also believed in the unity of style; that is, that while an artist might have many modes in which he worked, in the end, he had but a single style, which involuntarily expressed who he was. Hence, a correct understanding of the artist's style led to the spirit of the work and of its maker. His particular method of observation and description is well displayed in his essay, "The Style of Some Seventeenth-Century Paintings," in Artists and Traditions (Princeton, 1976).

This method of teaching is best achieved by direct examination of artworks, so Vanderstappen was instrumental in building a study collection of Chinese paintings at the Smart Museum of Art on campus. He was responsible for the museum's acquisition of several works from the former collection of Victoria Contag, and he also gave many paintings from his own collection to the Smart Museum over the years, always anonymously. Some of these are reproduced in Ritual and Reverence: Chinese Art at the University of Chicago (Chicago, 1989).

Beginning in 1968, Vanderstappen undertook the massive task of completing the pioneering project to catalogue everything published in Western languages on Chinese art since 1920, which had been orphaned by the death of the scholar-librarian T. L. Yuan in 1965. Vanderstappen doubled the number of entries before the manuscript, supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, was published in 1975 as The T.L. Yuan Bibliography of Western Writings on Chinese Art and Archaeology (Mansell).

In the 1980s Vanderstappen worked toward a book on Chinese Buddhist sculpture, travelling to cave-shrine sites in China and reading the secondary scholarship in Chinese and Japanese. Conditions in China were such then that he was unable to access all the sites he wanted to write about, and so rather than try to discuss art he had not seen firsthand, he set the project aside. The careful study and comprehensive vision in his published work on sculpture, such as his influential article with his student Marylin Rhie ("The Sculpture of T'ien Lung Shan: Reconstruction and Dating," Artibus Asiae, vol. 27 [1965], no. 3, pp. 189–238), and his thought-provoking review of James Caswell's Written and Unwritten: A New History of the Buddhist Caves at Yungang (Ars Orientalis, vol. 19 (1989), pp. 125–7), [End Page 135] suggests his planned book would have advanced the study of Chinese sculpture considerably. Closer to realization is his manuscript on the history of Chinese painting. With the typically modest working title of "Musings of a Journeyman," this compilation of his thoughts on painting, accrued over his years of teaching, was circulated among his students during the 1990s, and even now is making its way toward publication.

Born in Holland, the second of eleven siblings, Vanderstappen grew up on the family farm. He attended seminaries in the Netherlands and in Germany just before and during World War II. At one point he and his classmates hid from the Nazis in a windowless basement for nearly 100 days to avoid capture. In 1945 he was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in the Society of the Divine Word, a worldwide missionary order. He was assigned to Beijing as a missionary, but in 1947 Fu Jen Catholic University asked him to teach art, to which he said he was "converted." When the Communist party took control in China, he was expelled, along with the other foreign missionaries. He then came to the United States to study art.

Father V. was a great talker, from a family of great talkers. He often said that the Vanderstappen family motto should have been: "In the beginning was the Word." In seminar, he would smoke and talk, often about the scholars he had known from what seemed to us another world, such as Mizuno Seiichi (1905–1971) or A. G. Wenley (1898–1962). We felt we knew his teacher from Father V.'s imitations of his terrifying pronouncements in a heavy German accent. He talked about his childhood, how as a boy he would carry home great tin jars of dairy milk on his handlebars, which would threaten to tip over the bike, and how one could tell what village a man came from by the designs painted on his wooden shoes. In his house in Evanston he accumulated old hand tools, repaired antique watches, and collected art and books. After he retired, he gave it all away and moved to his order's Residence in nearby Techny, where he applied himself to his painting, producing pictures of "weird fish" and other quaint subjects. Throughout his years as a teacher and in his retirement, he celebrated mass for the parishioners of St. Anselm, a small African-American Divine Word church located on the South Side of Chicago. [End Page 136]

Amy McNair
University of Kansas

Additional Information

ISSN
1944-6497
Print ISSN
0066-6637
Pages
135-136
Launched on MUSE
2009-06-15
Open Access
No
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