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  • Michael Sullivan (1916–2013)
  • Jerome Silbergeld

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Michael Sullivan will be remembered as the foremost pioneer in the study of Chinese modern and contemporary painting. He wrote the first major book on the subject, Chinese Art in the Twentieth Century (1959), long before the subject became popular, and he followed that with a half-century of increasingly sophisticated and informative publications that help chart the growth of the discipline: The Meeting of Eastern and Western Art from the Sixteenth Century to the Present Day (1973, expanded edition 1989) concerned with the interactive role of both cultures in shaping both of their modernities; Art and Artists of Twentieth-Century China (1996); Modern Chinese Artists: A Biographical Dictionary (2006). Three of his students produced the first dissertations on twentieth-century topics. Despite this unique distinction, Sullivan was not a specialist in the subject—he never once taught a course on it—and he should be remembered as well for the remarkable breadth of interests and knowledge unmatched in later generations of Asian art scholars. It was this breadth that made possible his authorship of the most popular of all Chinese art history textbooks, An Introduction to Chinese Art (1960), revised in six successive editions as The Arts of China, as well as his authorship of the original edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s extensive entry on “The Visual Arts of China” (1974).

Michael Sullivan was born in 1916 in Toronto of a Canadian father and American mother, but he was reared in England from the age of three. He studied architecture at Cambridge University, graduating in 1939, with strong interests in archaeology and European art history as well. His interest in things Chinese was kindled by a friendship with fellow architecture student Wang Dahong, who many years later designed the Sun Yat-sen Memorial in Taipei and whose fast-moving Voisin automobile Sullivan raced at 100 miles per hour in 1937. When he first arrived in China in 1940, Chongqing was already under air assault by the Japanese and Sullivan was soon behind the steering wheel of an International Red Cross British Relief Unit truck, his driving skills tested by terrain that was challenging enough without bombs falling and unexploded ordnance all around. In 1942, he met and shortly afterward married a young bacteriologist from Amoy, Wu Huan (Khoan), and they became partners in scholarship and a profoundly devoted couple for life.

In wartime China, Sullivan put his artistic interests to good use. He participated with Cheng Te-kun in 1942 excavating the tenth-century tomb of the former Shu Kingdom emperor Wang Jian, near Chengdu—the subject of his first article on Chinese art (1946). His first publication, in 1945, was on Tibetan art in the West China Union University Museum. In Sichuan he also taught Renaissance art history to Chu-tsing Li, who later taught the subject at the University of Iowa before his decades of teaching Chinese art at the University of Kansas. Throughout the war years, Michael Sullivan personally befriended many of the artists and intellectuals who had retreated west to Sichuan, including Zhang Daqian, Wu Zuoren, Guan Shanyue, Lin Fengmian, Zhao Wuji, Huang Yongyu, Ding Cong, the sculptor Liu Kaiqu, and his personal favorite, Pang Xunqin. This shaped his approach to contemporary art and artists: not as an abstract or remote study but, as it had been with ancient authorities on the subject, by means of personal friendships and intimate observation. Returning after a long hiatus to China in 1973, 1975, 1979, and many times afterward, Sullivan renewed these friendships and extended his in-person studies.

When Sullivan returned to academic studies in England in 1947, it was at first to pursue European art at the Courtauld Institute, but he soon transferred to the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) to study classical Chinese (M.A., 1950), and within another two years he had obtained his doctoral degree from Harvard—the first dissertation on [End Page 209] Chinese painting in the English language. It was to early landscapes that he turned for his dissertation topic, later published as The Birth of Landscape Painting in China (1962...