Meyer Schapiro, Art Historian, Mentor to Generations

Photograph: Meyer Schapiro. Photo Credit: Manny Warman.

Meyer Schapiro, the celebrated art historian and University Professor Emeritus at Columbia, his academic home during a long and fruitful career, died Mar. 3 at his Manhattan residence.

He was 91.

The legendary teacher, lecturer and scholar whose writings are considered art history classics was a formative influence on generations of scholars and critics the world over, particularly in the areas of his special concentration, medieval and modern art. He had been affiliated with Columbia since he enrolled as a freshman in 1920 at age 16. He earned three degrees at the University, including the Ph.D. in 1929.

Schapiro began teaching art history at Columbia in 1928 as a lecturer and rose through the professorial ranks to become full professor in 1952. He was named University Professor, Columbia's highest rank, in 1965 and was designated University Professor Emeritus 1973. He continued to lecture at Columbia and elsewhere until recent years.

Columbia has ensured that recognition of his contributions to the University's intellectual life and art history scholarship will endure through the establishment of two endowed professorships in his name: the Meyer Schapiro Professorship of Art History, created in 1978 with gifts from former students, artists and colleagues in the arts community, and the Meyer Schapiro Professorship of Modern Art and Theory, established last year with a gift of $1 million from Morris Schapiro, his brother and fellow Columbia alumnus, to mark Professor Schapiro's 90th birthday.

"Meyer Schapiro was one of Columbia's Olympian scholars whose sparkling intellect and human concern brought to the world a fresh understanding and appreciation of art," said President Rupp today. "His enormous contributions to the field helped make Columbia's art history and archaeology department preeminent in the nation. He has left our lives forever enriched."

Professor David Rosand, who like his distinguished mentor earned three degrees at Columbia and who now holds the Meyer Schapiro Professorship of Art History, remembered his former teacher as a poet among scholars who "delighted in knowing and in sharing what he knew."

"Meyer's range as an art historian was universal, for he believed in the universality of art," Rosand said, "and the range of his knowledge was legendary. I had my greatest lessons in the art of painting in Meyer's art history classes. Studying with him at Columbia also offered a way into the vital art world of New York; he brought the artists to Morningside Heights, and their presence in his classroom, in some way validating his wisdom, added a further aura to the experience."

Known as a champion of the art of his time, he has not only written about contemporary art but has been a friend of countless artists, among them Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Willem de Kooning, Wolf Kahn, Jan Muller and George Segal. As a gesture to their friend and mentor on his 70th birthday, 12 artists created a numbered set of 100 signed portfolios of original lithographs, etchings and silk screens, the sale of which helped establish the first professorial chair in his name. The original works--by Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Alexander Liberman, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg, Saul Steinberg, Frank Stella, Andy Warhol and others--were exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A multi-faceted scholar and public lecturer, Professor Schapiro's interest and expertise ranged from early Christian, Byzantine, medieval, and modern art to the theory and philosophy of art and to studies in neighboring fields, including anthropology, psychology and sociology. His writings, manifestly slim compared to the breadth of his reputation, nevertheless comprise treasured texts of art criticism. Best known of earlier works are Vincent van Gogh, (1950), Cézanne (1952), and Words and Pictures, (1973). Four volumes of his selected essays and lectures published by George Braziller are: Romanesque Art (1977), Modern Art: 19th and 20th Centuries (1978), Late Antique, Early Christian and Medieval Art, in 1979, and Theory and Philosophy of Art: Style, Artist and Society (1994).

Schapiro was also an artist who sketched, painted and sculpted most of his life. Sixty of his works from 1919 to 1979 were shown in March 1987 as the inaugural exhibition of the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia.

Meyer Schapiro was born Sept. 23, 1904, in Siauliai, Lithuania, and was 3 when he emigrated to the United States with his family. They settled in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, where he attended public schools and had his first exposure to art in an evening class taught by the painter and etcher John Sloan at the Hebrew Settlement House. A brilliant student, he won a Pulitzer Scholarship and a Regents Scholarship to attend Columbia College.

Often honored in this country and abroad, he was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the American Philosophical Society. He lectured at New York University (1932-36), the New School for Social Research (1936-52) and at Harvard University as Charles Eliot Norton Lecturer and abroad at Oxford University and the Collège of France in Paris. He was named a MacArthur Foundation Fellow in 1987.

He received Columbia College's highest honor, the Alexander Hamilton Medal, in 1975 and an honorary doctor of letters degree from the University at commencement the same year.

Schapiro is survived by his wife, Dr. Lillian Milgrim; a daughter, Miriam Schapiro Grosof of Manhattan; a son, Ernest of Washington, D.C. his brother, Morris of Manhattan; two grandsons and a great-grandson.

A memorial service is being planned at Columbia.

Columbia University Record -- March 8, 1996 -- Vol. 21, No. 19