Howard Davis, Art Historian, Dies at 79

Photograph: Howard McParlin Davis; Photo credit: Arnold Browne, Columbia College Today.

Howard McParlin Davis, Moore Collegiate Professor Emeritus of Art History at Columbia, died September 9 of heart disease at the age of 79.

Davis was a legendary teacher at Columbia, where he began as an instructor in 1944. His classes in Italian Renaissance painting and on Northern European painting were among the most popular undergraduate courses at Columbia.

Generations of Columbia College students graduated with an especially deep appreciation of the art of Giotto and of Jan van Eyck.

Davis was often honored for his teaching. He received Columbia's Mark Van Doren Award in 1968 and the Great Teacher Award of the Society of Older Graduates of Columbia in 1970.

A Distinguished Teacher

In 1984 the College Art Association of America gave him its award for the Distinguished Teaching of Art History.

The citation read in part: "His qualities as a teacher are disarmingly simple, but profound in effect. They are not communicated by means of conventional classroom rhetoric. Howard Davis is no performer. Rather, he teaches by the example of his own passionate commitment and integrity, his belief in the life of the individual work of art, and his basic respect for the imagination of its creator.

A Passionate Art Historian

"Postulating meaning in the full experience of an image, Howard Davis has demonstrated that analysis proceeds from direct and personal engagement, that it is guided by fundamental questions concerning the essence of the object and the sensibility of its maker. His students have learned about the quality and obligation of seeing, the necessary human context and measure of this enterprise; through the example of their professor they have learned about the humanity of art."

Davis was born on Sept. 18, 1918, in Baltimore. He graduated from Princeton in 1936, where he majored in French language and literature; he earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in art history from Princeton in 1939.

Carnegie Fellow

The recipient of a Carnegie Fellowship in 1937, he studied at the Institut d'Art et d'Archèologie in Paris that summer; he spent the following summer studying in Brussels on a Belgian-American Educational Foundation Fellowship.

He was awarded a Fulbright Senior Research Grant to Italy in 1950-51, where he began his studies of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, an artist then not yet part of the canon in this country.

A Princeton Graduate

Although he published very little, Davis' articles and papers on "Fantasy and Irony in Pieter Bruegel's Prints" (1943), on "Gravity in the Paintings of Giotto" (1971), and on "Bees on the Tomb of Urban VIII" (1989) offered fundamentally new insights into major artists and their work.

Following his graduate career at Princeton, he joined the curatorial staff of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, first in the department of medieval art (1938-42) and then in the department of prints (1942-44). In 1942 he began teaching as a part-time lecturer at Hunter College in New York City.

Chairman, Art History and Archaeology

At Columbia, he was an instructor in art history from 1944 to 1947, when he was promoted to assistant professor; he was appointed associate professor in 1954 and full professor in 1962.

He was named Moore Collegiate Professor of Art History in 1980. He served as chairman of the department of art history and archaeology from 1969 to 1972.

Contributor to Core Curriculum

On the occasion of his retirement in 1985, a symposium was held in his honor at Columbia, with papers presented by former graduate students.

"A Classic Teacher Nears Career's End at Columbia" read the headline of an article published in The New York Times (Oct. 15, 1984) as Davis turned the then-mandatory retirement age of 70.

He served on the board of directors of the College Art Association, as secretary from 1957 to 1960, and, in 1959-60, as vice-president.

At Columbia he was particularly associated with the course known as "Art Humanities," masterpieces of Western art, an integral part of Columbia College's core curriculum.

One of the early designers of that course, he remained committed to it, making visual literacy a serious goal of general education.

Advisor to Pre-Med Students

"Supervising younger colleagues participating in the Humanities program, he initiated generations of graduate students and new assistant professors into the art of teaching and the human values of the study of art," the College Art Association citation read.

Throughout his career at Columbia, Davis served as a dedicated advisor to pre-medical students, a position he took as seriously as his teaching.

His name was well-known to medical school admissions officers; many of his most ardent admirers and friends among Columbia alumni are physicians.

Davis Fund Established

He is survived by his daughter Alison McParlin Davis. A memorial service in St. Paul's Chapel will be announced at a future date.

Contributions may be made to the Howard McP. Davis Fund, department of art history and archaeology, Columbia University, New York, N.Y. 10027.

Columbia University Record -- September 23, 1994 -- Vol. 20, No. 3