(b. 23 September 1904 in Siauliai, Lithuania; d. 3 March 1996 in New York City), American art historian who transformed studies of medieval and modern art and studies of the social and moral situation of the artist in the world.
Schapiro, one of the two surviving sons of Nathan Mena-chem Schapiro and Fanny Adelman, immigrated with his family to the United States in 1907. Nathan Schapiro had arrived in the United States the previous year; as a Hebrew teacher he saved enough money to send for his family, and he subsequently became a jobber in the paper-and-twine business. Schapiro and his brother, Morris, grew up in Brooklyn, New York, where he was first exposed to art in evening classes at the Hebrew Education Society Settlement House. He continued his training at the art school of the Brooklyn Museum of Art. At Boys High School, from which he graduated in 1920, he excelled in mathematics and Latin, while his political awareness and ideological commitment were developed through the Young Peoples Socialist League. He entered Columbia College in 1920, at the age of sixteen, and pursued a broad course of study, including Latin, modern languages, literature, anthropology, philosophy, mathematics, and art history. That intellectual range informed and characterized his work throughout his career. Receiving his A.B. in 1924, he continued his graduate studies at Columbia, studying especially with the anthropologist Franz Boas and the philosopher John Dewey. In 1929 Schapiro submitted his dissertation for a Ph.D., the first in fine arts and archaeology awarded by Columbia. Parts of his dissertation, “The Romanesque Sculpture of Moissac,” were published in the Art Bulletin in 1931 and opened entirely new critical perspectives for the study of medieval art.
A fellowship from the Carnegie Corporation enabled Schapiro to travel widely in Europe and the Near East in 1926 and 1927, viewing a vast range of art and preparing the foundations for his subsequent work. In 1928 he married Lillian Milgram; they had two children. In 1928 Schapiro also began teaching at Columbia, where he spent his entire career. He rose through the professional ranks at a surprisingly slow pace, suggesting lingering anti-Semitism. He was finally honored as University Professor in 1965, and he became University Professor Emeritus upon his retirement in 1973. In 1966 and 1967 Schapiro delivered the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard, in 1968 he was Slade Professor of Art at Oxford, and in 1974 he was visiting lecturer at the College de France in Paris. Elected a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1976, he was awarded a five-year MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 1987.
Throughout his career Schapiro moved between the Columbia campus on Morningside Heights and his home neighborhood in Greenwich Village, or between the university and the city, a pattern that typified his engagement in the worlds of the intellect and politics. From the late 1930s and through the 1940s he lectured as well at the New School for Social Research, thereby reaching the wider community of the New York City art world, especially the artists, in the years when the city was becoming the most dynamic center of contemporary art.
Committed to socialist ideals and anti-Stalinism, Schapiro played an active intellectual and moral role in the Marxist cultural politics of the 1930s. He was close to the emigré members of the Frankfurt school at the Institute for Social Research, and in 1939 he went to Paris to persuade the cultural critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin to accept an invitation to join them in New York City. Benjamin, however, declined. Close as well to the surrealists in exile, Schapiro mediated between those representatives of continental culture and young American artists, such as Robert Motherwell, who came to Columbia in 1940 to study with Schapiro. A trained artist, Schapiro respected artists and was close to them. In 1952 his comments to Willem de Kooning rescued one major monument of the new American painting Woman, I (1952).
As an art historian Schapiro moved between the medieval and the modern. His engagement with modern art opened him to phenomena in older art that had hitherto been ignored or not comprehended by a too generalized or limited art historiography. He recognized in Romanesque sculpture and in modern paintings problems of “perfection, coherence, and unity of form and content,” which he made the subject of an essay in 1966. Bringing to each art a searching precision of analysis, he was attentive to the nu-anced decisions, conscious and unconscious, of the sculptors of Moissac, Souillac, and Silos. With that same close, critical attention, he discerned the creativity of the individual brush stroke and the constructive function of color in the art of the impressionists Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse.
The larger aim of Schapiro’s project might be termed the reclamation of the artist in and from history. Within the larger official field of medieval church art and its dominant hierarchic structures, he sought the signs of artistic self-awareness and independent artistic virtuosity at the margins of the field. In medieval art he tended to reduce this to a conflict between the religious and the secular. Seeking the explicitly “artistic character” of works of medieval art, in “On the Aesthetic Attitude in Romanesque Art” (included in Art and Thought: Essays in Honor of A. K. Coomaraswamy, 1947) Schapiro argued for the emergence within church art of a new kind of artistic autonomy. Invoking the “aestheticism” of troubadour poetry, he set out in effect to secularize the achievements of the medieval artist and to isolate the artist’s professional ambition and skill.
Schapiro’s method was one of close and sympathetic stylistic description. From the expressive physiognomy of the work of art, discerned in accordance with what he termed “general psychological laws,” emerged a persona of its creator. The artists he discovered in history were embedded in and conditioned by larger material and ideological realities. Their prospects were hardly unlimited. It was precisely the dialectic of that tension between the individual and the social that attracted him, and that tension reflected the complexities of his own personal conflicts and commitments, including his Jewishness and his socialist beliefs. He deliberately rejected religion as a barrier to intellectual freedom and remained committed to socialism.
At the first American Artists’ Congress against War and Fascism in 1936, Schapiro delivered a paper, “The Social Bases of Art.” Refusing “to reduce art to economics or sociology or politics,” he insisted rather on the distinctive nature and conditions of art, which has “its own conditions which distinguish it from other activities. It operates with its own special materials and according to general psychological laws.” He went on to define the marginal situation of the artist in modern society, that is, his or her professional isolation. “Yet helpless as he is to act on the world, he shows in his art an astonishing ingenuity and joy in transforming the shapes of familiar things.”
In 1937 in the Marxist Quarterly, of which he was a founding editor, Schapiro published an article on the “Nature of Abstract Art.” Responding to the 1936 exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, Schapiro resisted its formalist assumption of the independence of modern abstract art from modern historical realities. He insisted instead on the moral dimensions of that art and its intimate rapport with the values of modern bourgeois life. As a student he had been inspired by the writings of Roger Fry, and his essay revealed a critical sensibility that joined the aesthetic perception of the studio with a Marxist vision grounded in social and material realities. Schapiro’s essay established an entirely new basis for the understanding of modern art that acknowledged it as part of a larger world of social life. He made the bourgeois art of impressionism more intelligible and more interesting, and he demonstrated “the burden of contemporary experience” inherent in abstract art. “It bears within itself at almost every point the mark of the changing material and psychological conditions surrounding modern culture.”
The assumed correlation of form and meaning allowed Schapiro to move easily between the large and small dimensions of style or between the work of art as a manifestation of shared social values and the most personal expression. He identified the work intimately with its maker, especially in his studies of Vincent van Gogh and Paul Cezanne. Although responsive to the possibilities of psychoanalytic theory, he was critical of Sigmund Freud’s essay on Leonardo da Vinci for its narrow focus and Freud’s failure to recognize the contributing conditions of the larger social world and cultural conventions.
Schapiro searched for the operational principles that distinguish art, and his main concern as a scholar was with periods when the basic elements of image making were subject to fundamental pressures and reevaluation. His language was characterized by candor, clarity of thought, directness, and even simplicity of expression. Regardless of the specific examples that occasioned his comments, he was sure of the absolute, fundamental nature of his theme, although his demonstrations were more suggestive than assertive. The markers of his argument are references to the essentials of the art: frame and field, figure and ground, and mimetic and nonmimetic. However, he never presented such basic terms as abstractions or as absolute values. Schapiro refused to subordinate the artist’s freedom to the laws of art. He insisted on freedom, even if it were latent rather than actual.
This attitude made it difficult for Schapiro to accept the great descriptive and explanatory models of the earlier generation of theorists he admired for their intellectual ambition. In a magisterial article, “Style,” published in Anthropology Today in 1953, Schapiro reviewed the efforts of the earlier theorists, including the stylistic polarities postulated by Heinrich Wölfflin, the cyclical pattern conceived by Paul Frankl, the phenomenological duality of Alois Riegl, and the progressive stages of Emanuel Löwy. He found each wanting, and he found wanting the crude application of Marx to the explanation of style by the forms of social life.
“A theory of style adequate to the psychological and historical problems has still to be created,” Schapiro concluded somewhat wistfully. “It waits for a deeper knowledge of the principles of form construction and expression and for a unified theory of the processes of social life in which the practical means of life as well as emotional behavior are comprised.” That open conclusion reveals his hopes as a scholar committed to the search for fundamental truths and his frustration as a man whose political ideals remained unrealized.
Lillian Milgram Schapiro, comp., Meyer Schapiro: The Bibliography (1995), is a bibliography of Schapiro’s work published during his lifetime. Many of his studies, unpublished lectures, and papers are reprinted in Meyer Schapiro, Selected Papers, Vol. 1, Romanesque Art (1977), Vol. 2, Modern Art, Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (1978), Vol. 3, Late Antique, Early Christian, and Mediaeval Art (1979), and Vol. 4, Theory and Philosophy of Art: Style, Artist, and Society (1994). Other posthumous publications of Schapiro’s lectures include Words, Script, and Pictures: Semiotic of Visual Language (1996), Impressionism: Reflections and Perceptions (1997), and The Unity of Picasso’s Art (2000). Meyer Schapiro, Worldview in Painting —Art and Society (1999), includes several texts of Schapiro’s early political and social commentary from the 1930s, especially in regard to the position of art and the artists in the modern world. Schapiro’s development as an artist is documented in Lillian Milgram Schapiro and Daniel Esterman, eds., Meyer Schapiro: His Painting, Drawing, and Sculpture (2000). A full biographical treatment is Helen Epstein, “Meyer Schapiro: ’A Passion to Know and Make Known,’ “Art News 82 (May 1983 and summer 1983). Evaluations of Schapiro’s achievement are “On the Work of Meyer Schapiro,” Social Research: An International Quarterly of the Social Sciences 45, no. 1 (1978), and in the Oxford Art Journal 17, no. 1 (1994). An obituary is in the New York Times (4 Mar. 1996).