Art historian, critic, and painter. Among the outstanding art historians of the twentieth century, he surpassed nearly all his colleagues in originality of thought and influence in the field. He also painted for pleasure throughout his career and often exhibited landscapes and figure studies. As well, he numbers among few scholars of his era who maintained strong and intimate connections to the New York art community. Variously teacher, mentor, and friend to artists and critics, he also counted many literary and intellectual figures among his acquaintances. Born in Siauliai, Russia (now Lithuania), Meir Schapiro arrived with his family at Ellis Island in 1907. He grew up in Brooklyn and remained permanently in New York. Interested in art even as a child, at an early age he took a class with John Sloan. After graduating from Columbia University in 1924, he began graduate study in anthropology with his undergraduate mentor Franz Boas, but he soon switched to art history. In France in 1926 and 1927, he pursued groundbreaking research on the twelfth-century sculpture of the abbey church and cloister at Moissac. This work, the basis of his doctoral dissertation, established his professional credentials and elevated the Romanesque as a subject of art historical inquiry. He began teaching at Columbia in 1928, the year before receiving his PhD, and remained on the faculty until he retired in 1973. Despite his eminence as a medievalist, he remained interested in the art of all periods, particularly the modern era. In the 1930s, he participated in the left-wing American Artists' Congress and was instrumental in the early 1940s in forming a nonpolitical alternative, the Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors. As émigré European artists gathered in New York during World War II, he acted as an important conduit between them and their American counterparts. Arshile Gorky, Allan Kaprow, Roberto Matta, Robert Motherwell, Ad Reinhardt, Lucas Samaras, Irving Sandler, Kurt Seligmann, and Minor White, as well as André Breton and Fernand Léger, number among those whose lives he directly touched. Besides slender monographs on van Gogh (1950) and Cézanne (1952), his publications include Words and Pictures (1973), treating illuminated manuscripts; The Romanesque Sculpture of Moissac (1985); and several volumes of collected essays and lectures, including compilations related to impressionism and to Picasso.
Subjects: Art — Philosophy.