Columbians Ahead of Their Time
 Meyer Schapiro
Meyer Schapiro "Art has its own conditions which distinguish it from other activities. It operates with its own special materials and according to general psychological laws."

Meyer Schapiro (1904–1996)
Art Historian
Columbia College 1924
Faculty 1928–73
LittD (hon.) 1975

Meyer Schapiro personified art history at Columbia for more than five decades, but his influence extended far beyond Morningside Heights. A man whose expertise ranged from Romanesque sculpture to contemporary art, he is credited with redefining both the demands and the ambitions of the discipline. Schapiro's critical vision set him apart: He pursued "a particularly American approach to the study of art . . . founded on a deep intellectual engagement with its European elders but particularly shaped by an equally profound response to developments in modern art," wrote David Rosand, the Meyer Schapiro Professor of Art History. "He recognized the dialectical tension between the assertion of artistic freedom and the constraints of social and economic life." A well-known figure outside the academy, Schapiro was a contemporary of and counselor to many renowned artists. Indeed, he counted among his legion of friends and/or former students the artists Robert Motherwell, Jacques Lipchitz, Barnett Newman, Willem de Kooning, Wolf Kahn, Jan Muller, and George Segal, as well as the critics Irving Howe and Hilton Kramer. Schapiro wrote books on Romanesque, medieval, and modern art; theory; and classic studies of Cézanne and Van Gogh. His collected essays fill seven volumes.

Schapiro discovered his life's passion at an evening class taught by the artist John Sloan at the Hebrew Settlement House. Attending Columbia College on Pulitzer and Regents scholarships, he graduated at age 20 with honors in both art history and philosophy. He began teaching at Columbia in 1928, before his dissertation was even completed, and continued lecturing after his retirement in 1973. "A mesmerizing speaker who could sculpt works of art with his prose," in the words of an admirer, Schapiro introduced the study of art history to the Core Curriculum before art humanities was officially created. In 1975 he was awarded Columbia College's highest honor, the Alexander Hamilton Medal, for distinguished service and accomplishment. In 1978 the Meyer Schapiro Professorship of Art History was established, thanks to contributions from former students, artists, and colleagues. In 1995, to mark Schapiro's 90th birthday, his brother Morris donated 1 million dollars to establish the Meyer Schapiro Professorship of Modern Art and Theory.

Read more about Schapiro in the Columbia Encyclopedia.


Schapiro's obituary, from the Columbia Record


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