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The Artist Historian

A decade after his death, Meyer Schapiro is remembered as the most inspiring and imaginative American art historian of the past century. Although a distinguished professor of medieval art at Columbia, he was best known as a public intellectual who was as deeply interested in the contemporary art scene as in the art of the past. His legendary lectures attracted not only students and scholars from neighboring fields but also—and more importantly—many well-known New York artists. He was immensely learned, but followed his own idiosyncratic approach. Asked how he managed to move so effortlessly in his work from the early Middle Ages to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, he is said to have answered: “I skipped the Renaissance.” He never wrote a single great book, but his numerous articles and essays made enormous contributions to art scholarship. During the Thirties he had been drawn to Marxism—more precisely to Trotskyism—but he was never dogmatic and strongly opposed the excesses of Stalin. Above all, he believed in the autonomy of art, and viewed abstract painting as the last expression of uninhibited creativity and fantasy in a social world dominated by technology and industrial production.

I’ll never forget my first long conversation with him. It was early in 1962 on the campus at Columbia, during a snowstorm of which he seemed oblivious. I happened to mention Zeitbilder, a recent book by Arnold Gehlen, the conservative German sociologist,1 in which Jackson Pollock’s much-discussed technique—his “all-over” method of dripping paint on a large canvas stretched out on the floor—was likened to the automated process of a factory assembly line. This provoked an explosive reaction from Schapiro, who angrily defended Pollock: his work, he said, was fundamentally about spontaneity. I learned more about Schapiro himself in that moment—even about Schapiro the medievalist—than from reading and studying all his admirable essays.

At the time Schapiro began his graduate work in the 1920s, there had long been in the United States a naive notion of the “Romanesque” style, which was associated with castles and tournaments, monasteries and pilgrimage. In the second half of the nineteenth century, neo-Romanesque buildings with round arches, heavy stonework, short squat columns, and recessed entrances—all seen in contrast to the high, pointed architecture of the Gothic churches that came later—were erected throughout New England by architects such as H.H. Richardson. In 1904, the publication of Henry Adams’s astonishing book Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres did much to spread a violent and gloomy picture of the period in which Romanesque and Gothic art was produced. A decade later, George Barnard installed his picturesque collection of Romanesque fragments in New York. This collection, which he had assembled mainly from ruins and lapidaries in the south of France, became the core of the Cloisters, the museum constructed by the Rockefellers in Washington Heights in the 1930s that included architectural elements from several important Romanesque and Gothic buildings in France.

After World War I American interest in Romanesque art was greatly heightened by the work of Arthur Kingsley Porter, a self-taught art historian, who took up the study of Romanesque sculpture with almost religious fervor. Like a medieval pilgrim—but a pilgrim with car and camera—he roamed all over Europe, hunting Romanesque monuments. In 1923 Porter published ten volumes under the title Romanesque Sculpture of the Pilgrimage Roads from Bari in southern Italy to Santiago de Compostela. His parochial European colleagues were astonished; America was rapidly becoming a center of Romanesque studies and collections. It was in this climate that Schapiro chose Romanesque sculpture as his special field as a young art history student at Columbia.


In 1926, at the age of twenty-two, Schapiro traveled to France to collect material for a doctoral dissertation on the sculpture at Moissac, the twelfth-century church near Toulouse known for its elaborate sculptures. In Paris he met French and German scholars who were interested in the same works, although they had little interest in the broader social issues that fascinated him. After his return to New York, he began a correspondence with Porter, by then a distinguished professor at Harvard, who shared his remarkable knowledge of Romanesque monuments and enormous collection of photographs with this brilliant young colleague. In 1932, Porter invited Schapiro to give a guest lecture at Harvard on medieval art.

Schapiro presented his dissertation in 1929 and two years later published the greater part of it in two path-breaking articles in The Art Bulletin. They were a stroke of genius. For the first time a great body of Romanesque sculpture became the object of a true art-historical analysis. Schapiro was not interested in conventional problems of chronology, influence, and attribution, or, as Porter had been, in relating Moissac to the sculptures on the pilgrimage road to Spain. Nor was he drawn to the religious iconography of medieval art, a subject which had been masterfully explored in the early years of the twentieth century by the great French art historian Émile Mâle. As a son of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania who grew up in modest circumstances in Brooklyn, he had had little chance to come into contact with Romanesque art and this, as it turned out, was a great advantage. With his fresh eyes, the capitals of the cloister and the sculptures of the portal at Moissac were strange and bewildering, requiring not only archaeological, antiquarian, or iconographic analysis, but also an acute sensitivity to their aesthetic qualities.

Nothing is in my view more misleading than to describe Schapiro’s approach to Moissac as merely formalist. The young art historian, who would soon become a perceptive critic of modern art, was stunned by the inventiveness and experimental character of these sculptures. Why, he asked, were they so primitive in their simplicity and at the same time so refined in their expression? By way of answer, he wrote in his first article on Moissac in 1931:

I find the essence of the style in the archaic representation of forms, designed in restless but well-coordinated opposition, with a pronounced tendency towards realism.2

Among professional medievalists Schapiro remained an exotic figure, unpredictable, independent, and inspired by elements of creative discord and surprise that had been immune to the tools of conventional analysis. He had been a member of the Young People’s Socialist League since age twelve, and his ecumenical interests constantly took him to fields and issues that were far from medieval cloisters. Within a year of publishing his “Romanesque Sculpture of Moissac” he also wrote—under a pseudonym—a very critical paper, “Architecture under Capitalism,” for the Marxist journal New Masses, in which he argued that the new approaches to social housing advocated by many architects were subject to the same capitalist forces they were ostensibly intended to neutralize.

He had become an active member of the New York left, but he sometimes seemed torn between his political convictions and his unwavering belief in the autonomy of art. During the early years of the New Deal, he took part in the debate about the social function of art, but he objected to those who advocated a rigid adherence to the doctrines of social realism.3 In his papers on Moissac and other monuments he tried to link art to surrounding social situations. Yet in a 1936 essay, he warned, “When I speak…on the social bases of art I do not mean to reduce art to economics or sociology or politics.”4

Soon after receiving his Ph.D., Schapiro joined the art history faculty of Columbia and initially began to publish rather dry academic articles on Romanesque sculpture. But in 1939 he made a radical break from earlier scholarship in two brilliant articles, “The Sculptures of Souillac” and “From Mozarabic to Romanesque in Silos,” in which he sought to analyze French and Spanish Romanesque sculpture in relation to social change in France and Christian Spain. Earlier, writers such as Victor Hugo and Eugène Viollet-Le-Duc had attempted to combine studies of art and society, but their ideas had been influenced by anticlericalism and were long forgotten by Schapiro’s time.

The lengthy articles on Souillac and Silos are Schapiro’s most innovative and widely praised writings on Romanesque sculpture. Both were based on the fieldwork he had undertaken years before in his dissertation research; but they also reflected a great deal of imaginative thinking done far from the medieval monuments in Europe, in the intellectual and political ferment of 1930s New York. The article on Souillac begins with a brilliant and subversive description of the large relief on the inner west wall of the church, which depicts the legend of Theophilus, an early Christian cleric who is said to have made a pact with the devil to regain his position as vicedominus (bishop’s administrator) and was saved by the intervention of the Virgin. With its chaotic intermingling of human figures, saints, and beasts, Schapiro observed,

The expected Romanesque adherence to an embracing architectural frame is violated throughout the work. But a more detailed analysis will show that the apparently “accidental” design is a deeply coherent arrangement, even systematic in a sense, and similar to other mediaeval works.

In short, Schapiro argued, the whole sculptural ensemble was such that corresponding elements were “discoordinate”—they directly opposed the usual principles of order, symmetry, and organization around a single axis. With his powerful imagination and persuasive rhetoric Schapiro catapulted Romanesque sculpture into the conflicts, restlessness, and chaos of the modern age. He was particularly drawn, for example, to what he called the sculptors’ “passionate feeling for expressive pantomime.” And he viewed the sculptures themselves as powerfully and imaginatively drawn from nature, as for example in his description of the animal imagery of the famous trumeau, or carved pillar:

A remarkable intrigue animates these opposed predacious beasts. They are of different species, the one a monstrous quadruped with the wings and head of a bird, the other a kind of Romanesque lion. Their foreparts are mounted on each other’s backs, but their bodies are turned in opposite directions, as if awaiting other prey. Then reversing the divergent movements of their bodies, they turn their heads and find a common prey behind their crossed backs.

Such prose explains the extraordinary, sensational success of the Souillac study. No one else had ever written on Romanesque sculpture with this intensity.

But there was a specific polemic in the essay that has until now been overlooked. Schapiro’s insistence on “discoordination” was also an attack against the most authoritative explanation of the principles governing Romanesque sculpture. In a book published in 1931, Henri Focillon, then the dean of French art historians, argued that the organization of sculptures was predetermined by what he called the loi du cadre, the “law of the frame”: sculptural ensembles were seen as composed in strict relation to the shape of the spaces they occupied. Schapiro’s “discoordination” boldly challenged Focillon’s rappel à l’ordre. It was New York against Paris! Schapiro had created in a single stroke a genuinely American vision of Romanesque sculpture.

  1. 1

    Frankfurt: Athenäum, 1960.

  2. 2

    The Romanesque Sculpture of Moissac—Part I,” The Art Bulletin, Vol. 13, No. 4 (1931); reprinted in Meyer Schapiro, Romanesque Art: Selected Papers (Braziller, 1977); the quote is on p. 132.

  3. 3

    See Meyer Schapiro, Worldview in Painting—Art and Society: Selected Papers (Braziller, 1999), pp. 113–118, especially p. 114. This paper was written in the early 1930s but only published posthumously.

  4. 4

    Meyer Schapiro, “The Social Bases of Art,” in Worldview in Painting, pp. 119–128, especially p. 119.

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