Category Archives: art history

An epilogue for a prologue

This post is an epilogue of sorts. The project to process, describe, and make accessible the Meyer Schapiro Collection at Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library is now complete.

This post is also a prologue. Now that the collection will soon be available to the public, I can only imagine that new scholarly and historical perspectives will emerge relating to Schapiro: his influence, relationships, and contributions to the field of art history. As a historical figure, Schapiro was at the center of many important circles, whether artistic, philosophic, or scholarly and this collection will give the public a new understanding of not only Schapiro but to the historical period of the pre- and post-war years.

The collection, with a total of 398 linear feet of material, is a portrait of a man through documents, recordings, and his art works.

I’d like to use this final post to give readers a description of the collection and how the records were arranged. Stay tuned for the full finding aid to the collection in the near future.

Description of the collection

The collection of art historian Meyer Schapiro contains a vast range of material documenting the professor’s personal, professional, and artistic life. The collection encompasses Schapiro’s early academic training to his rise as a prominent theorist and historian of Medieval, Romanesque, Impressionist, and Modern art. His personal life is documented through early school records, course notes from college, typescripts and notes relating to his masters thesis and doctoral dissertation, and photographs and notebooks from his travels abroad between 1927 through 1957. The collection also houses an extensive set of Schapiro’s own art work in various mediums that spans from the early 1920s through the 1980s.

Schapiro was at the center of many artistic and political debates from the 1930s through the 1990s and his correspondence in the collection  reflects his ongoing support of academics, artists, and philosophers. This includes his efforts to aid German and Jewish refugees of World War II.

Schapiro’s professional activities as a professor and lecturer are strongly represented in the collection. Materials include transcripts, outlines, research notes, and audio recordings of his lectures, many of which formed the basis for his written corpus. Also in the collection is Schapiro’s extensive research notes on subject matter relating to art, politics, and sociology that are arranged alphabetically by subject.

Included in the collection is a substantial array of Schapiro’s published and unpublished writings, including articles, essays, manuscripts, published works, reviews, translations and poetry. Schapiro’s intellectual curiosity necessitated his own constant reappraisal of his professional written work. This includes editing, clarifying, and expanding upon typescripts, outlines, and notes relating to lectures that he foresaw as being published.

A constant source of support for Schapiro’s professional and artistic output was his wife, Lillian Milgram Schapiro. After Schapiro’s death, she would work to complete projects that Schapiro began and oversaw the management of his legacy. As a result, material in the collection that post-dates Schapiro’s death in 1996 was generated by Lillian Milgram Schapiro and is noted throughout the finding aid.


This collection is arranged in VIII series.

Series I: Personal papers, 1919-2001

Subseries: I.1: Awards, degrees, and prizes, 1959-1995

Sub-Subseries: I.1.1: Awards, 1959-1995

Sub-Subseries: I.1.2: Degrees, 1966-1988

Sub-Subseries: I.1.3: Prizes, 1979-1985

Subseries: I.2: Biography files, 1927-2001

Subseries: I.3: Dedications and eulogies, 1980-1996

Sub-Subseries: I.3.1: Dedications, 1980-1996

Sub-Subseries: I.3.2: Eulogies, 1996

Subseries: I.4: Exhibitions, 1960-1989

Subseries: I.5: Photographs, 1928-1990s

Sub-Subseries: I.5.1: Portraits   , 1928-1990s

Sub-Subseries: I.5.2: Travel photographs, 1927-1957

Subseries: I.6: Private collection, 1961-1998

Subseries: I.7: School records, 1919-1929

Subseries: I.8: Travel notebooks, 1926-1974

Sub-Subseries I.8.1: Notebooks, 1927-1974

Sub-Subseries I.8.2: Detached leaves and tourist maps, 1927-1947 

 Series II: Correspondence, 1920s-2001

 Series III: Professional papers, 1929-1990

Subseries: III.1: Administrative records, 1950s-1990s

Subseries: III.2: Courses, 1929-1977

Sub-Subseries: III.2.1: Columbia University, 1929-1977

Sub-Subseries: III.2.2: New School for Social Research (New York, N.Y.), 1930s-1954

Sub-Subseries: III.2.3: New York University, 1930s

Sub-Subseries: III.2.4: Other or unknown institutions, 1930s-1965       

Subseries: III.3: Lectures, 1930s-1980s

Sub-Subseries: III.3.1: 1930s

Sub-Subseries: III.3.2: 1940s

Sub-Subseries: III.3.3: 1950s

Sub-Subseries: III.3.4: 1960s

Sub-Subseries: III.3.5: 1970s

Sub-Subseries: III.3.6: 1980s

Subseries: III.4: Committees, memberships, and professional affiliations, 1972-1990

Sub-Subseries: III.4.1: Committees, 1972-1978

Sub-Subseries: III.4.2: Memberships, 1939-1989

Sub-Subseries: III.4.3: Professional affiliations, 1989-1990

 Series IV: Writings, 1928-2009

Subseries: IV.1: Administrative records, 1960s-2003

Subseries: IV.2: Articles, 1929-1994

Sub-Subseries: IV.2.1: 1929-1930s

Sub-Subseries: IV.2.2: 1940s

Sub-Subseries: IV.2.3: 1950s

Sub-Subseries: IV.2.4: 1960s

Sub-Subseries: IV.2.5: 1970s

Sub-Subseries: IV.2.6: 1980s

Subseries: IV.3: Essays, 1930s-1990s

Subseries: IV.4: Manuscripts, 1930s-2002

Subseries: IV.5: Publications, 1928-2009

Subseries: IV.6: Reviews, 1930-1972

Subseries: IV.7: Scrapbooks, 1928-1966

Subseries: IV.8: Translations and Poetry, 1930s-1970s

Series V: Research files, 1930s-1990s

Subseries: V.1: Administrative records, 1950s-1980s

Subseries: V.2: Articles and clippings, 1930s-1980s

Subseries: V.3: Bibliographies, 1930s-1960s

Subseries: V.4: Research card files, 1930s-1980s

Subseries: V.5: Research notes, 1920s-1990s  

Subseries: V.6: Reproductions, 1930s-1990s

Series VI: Exhibition announcements, invitations, and press releases, 1920-2001

Subseries: VI.1: 1920-1942

Subseries: VI.2: A-E, 1943-2001

Subseries: VI.3: F-L, 1943-2001

Subseries: VI.4: M-R, 1943-2001

Subseries: VI.5: S-Z, 1943-2001

Subseries: VI.6: Group exhibitions, 1945-2001

Subseries: VI.7: Oversize

 SeriesVII: Sound and video recordings, 1952-1990s

Subseries:VII.1: Administrative records, 1985-1990s

Subseries:VII.2: Audiocassettes and audiotapes, 1952-1982

Subseries: VII.3: Videocassettes, 1988

Series VIII: Works of art, 1920s-1980s

Subseries: VIII.1: Administrative records, 1980s-1990s

Subseries: VIII.2: Prints and drawings, 1920s-1980s

Subseries: VIII.3: Paintings, 1930s-1980s

Subseries: VIII.4: Sculptures and printing plates, 1930s-1980s

Subseries: VIII.5: Linoleum printing blocks, circa 1930s-1960s

Subseries: VIII.6: Sketchbooks, 1960s

I’d like to thank the following interns for their excellent work in making this project a success. Bronwen Bittetti rolled her sleeves up to work on Series VIII: Works of art, 1920s-1980s; Tamara Kemp organized  Series VI: Exhibition announcements, invitations, and press releases, 1920-2001 brilliantly; and Megan S. Rulli jumped right in to sort out Series V: Research files, Subseries: V.2: Articles and clippings. Additional collection management support was provided by Columbia University work-study student Haruna Otsuka.

I will end with a quote from John Pope-Hennesy’s Learning to look where he describes Schapiro brilliantly: 

"The function of art history is to determine why individual artifacts took the form they did. This task involves a mastery of widely divergent areas of knowledge, which extend from simple history (if any history is simple) to semiotics and psychology. In relation to the ideal requirements of the subject the equipment of most art historians (myself included) is sadly inadequate. They operate in the conventional, clumsy way in which dentists used to drill teeth half a century ago. But with Schapiro one is constantly astonished by the variety of angles from which problems are attacked, and by the lucidity with which his concepts are expressed. His work is at root visual."

Thank you all for following this blog!

Signing off …

Farris Wahbeh

Project Archivist, Meyer Schapiro Collection

Columbia University | Rare Book & Manuscript Library


Meyer Schapiro and Naive Art

While primarily known as a scholar of medieval and modern art, Meyer Schapiro was also interested in artists and art movements outside of these two genres. In this regard, Meyer Schapiro wrote about "naive painting" in the unpublished outline titled "Significance of modern naive painting" and his writing on this genre is as topical as it is intriguing.

The term "naive" art has etymological roots with "outsider" and "self-taught" art, and, indeed, these terms have been conflated with each other. While each term has its set of socio-cultural issues (whether they be art historical, museological, sociological, economical, or racial), naive, outsider, and self-taught art have deep roots in the art historical canon, even while the genre itself spirals in and out of the canonical orbit constructed from an Anglo-European art historical framework.

The conflation of these terms stems from their mutual affinity in describing  artists who were not formally trained, but relied on their own social, cultural, psychological, and ethnic resources to execute their art practices.

That Schapiro was writing on naive art in the 1940s and 1950s is quite a revelation. For it was in those years when this genre of art was waning in popularity due to the rise of another nascent and emerging genre, Abstract Expressionism.

The history of self-taught art in the United States is rife with compellingly contradictory trajectories.  Self-taught art can be art historically traced to artisanal folk traditions in the United States (primarily from New England), to European art historical scholarship on art and psychiatry (from the likes of Hans Prinzhorn whom Schapiro was in correspondence with in the 1930s), and, finally, to self taught "primitive" artists as articulated by the author Sidney Janis in the publication They Taught Themselves: American Primitive Painters of the 20th Century.

Janis’s publication also had an accompanying exhibition of the same name that was mounted at the Marie Harriman Gallery in Manhattan from February9 through March 7, 1942. Schapiro may have attended this exhibition, as his archive includes a copy of the Harriman Gallery brochure which is pictured above at right.

The history of "naive art" highlights a portrait of American identity between the World Wars: one that eschewed the tastes of the upper class for a populist (and popular) narrative that was thought to resound with the public, especially in times of economic distress due to the Depression and to social unrest because of World War I and world tensions leading to World War II.

For a compelling look into this genre during the wars, see Galerie St. Etienne’s essay for the exhibition "They Taught Themselves : American Self-Taught Painters Between the World Wars."  (Notice the shift in terms from "naive" to "self-taught" in the exhibition title compared to Janis’s original publication.)

As Abstract Expressionism became the leading cultural identity for a victorious America after World War II, the self-taught genre became marginalized. It wasn’t until the 1960s onward that the genre became to be appreciated again by the likes of collector Herbert Hemphill for its strong aesthetic and cultural significance.

Schapiro’s writing on naive art is astonishing for celebrating its highly visionary and personal quality beholden to the artist, an emphasis that would become the genres leading theoretical axis in the 1970s to the present. Schapiro would write:

Modern naive, home-made painting presupposes the general change in painting to an art of personal experience and perceptions. The domestic painter discovers this not through contact with artists, but through the pictures themselves; the fact that he sees so many landscapes and intimate scenes and beautiful girls permits him to identify painting with his own desires and images. The relation between painting and fantasy of perception is more direct than in literature, where the command of language requires a long cultivation and symbolic method, the painter who represents a beautiful landscape or woman recreates the stimulus or the object of desire, its dreamed of colors and shapes.

While Schapiro’s writing on naive art went unpublished, it is uncanny in that it reveals how scholars and gatekeepers would reconceptualize the genre thirty years later.  Schapiro positions these artists, whom he terms "domestic painters" as visionaries.

Modern naive, home-made painting presupposes the general change in painting to an art of personal experience and perceptions. The domestic painter discovers this not thru contact with artists, but thru the pictures themselves; the fact that he sees so many landscapes and intimate scenes and beautiful girls permits him to identify painting with his own desires and images. The relation between painting and fantasy or perception is more direct than literature, where the command of language requires a long cultivation and symbolic method; the paitner who represents a beautiful landscape or woman recreates the stimulus or the object of desire, its dreamed of colors and shapes.

In this regard, for Schapiro, "naive painting" is "image painting" and "not abstraction or automatism or collage or expressionist formalism. "

Schapiro also touches on another controversial topic for scholars of the genre: its position and relation to modern and contemporary art.

As Schapiro writes:

Why are there no important naive artists before Rousseau? Have they been lost because of lack of interest in their work? Are the American domestic painters of the 18th and 19th centuries comparable to the modern naive artists? One must be cautious in answering these questions, since the material has never been collected properly; and what has been exhibited is judged mainly from the viewpoint of modern art.

That the works by naive artists are to be viewed from outside the viewpoint of modern art, or seen under a different lens altogether as Schapiro highlights, is one that underlines these works as created outside the modernist canon.

In retrospect, however, and as the etymology of the terms "naive," "primitive," "self-taught," and "outsider" art have demonstrated, these genres have a lineage that was part of the "modernist" canon itself in that, as definitions, they were constructed to clarify each other as descriptive terms to understand the practices of artists during a given historical time.

By bringing into relief the process of looking at these works, one can sense Schapiro’s keen call to perceive and look closely, differently, and with pleasurable scrutiny at this genre, all ideas that he sought to bring to the art historical discipline.

In this vein, Schapiro would move the chronological axis of self-taught art further back in time when he writes:

Is there any other period in which painters are self-taught? Perhaps in the middle ages, in the monasteries or scriptoria, which produced much home-made painting and ornament and perhaps stone-work. Then, as today, painting was cultivated as a private or personal evocation, as a marginal activity.

A compelling idea from a consummate medievalist.


Archival transfers and the resonance of ephemera

Archivists are very familiar with the transfer of archival material: from filing cabinet to box; box to truck; truck to repository; repository to archivist; archivist to process; process to description; and, finally, description to access. Electronic records follow the same general transfer, but, instead of a physical “filing cabinet,” there is the “file structure” of electronic files on a desktop, server, or hard drive whose final user access is most likely mitigated via a digital repository.

This project has certainly had its share of transferring archival material. Initially, the manuscript portion of the collection was housed in their original filing cabinets as seen to your right. (Those boxes stacked above the cabinets are Meyer Schapiro’s art works which have been described to the individual item and rehoused).

As seen on your left, each individual file drawer included material that encompassed a broad range of Schapiro’s professional life, such as course outlines, lecture notes, research files, and correspondence.

All these files were transferred to record carton boxes to facilitate the processing of the material and to aid in the process of creating a records arrangement that would intellectually describe the contents of the archival material.

This image to the right shows boxed material of exhibition announcements that were transferred from the Visual Resources Center housed at Columbia University’s Art History and Archeology department. These exhibition announcements span from the 1920s to the 2000s and were collected by Schapiro and his wife Lillian Miligram Schapiro. They were systematically filed and organized chronologically by artist’s last name.

This portion of the archive, or “series” in archival parlance, is a phenomenal example of how collected ephemeral material can gain historical resonance. All these exhibition announcements and invitations give a micro-history of New York City through the lens of the art gallery. It shows who owned galleries, where their spaces were located, which artists were exhibited across time, and what art works were shown. Many research avenues can come through this: provenance research on individual works of art; a history of the art establishment in New York City; and the rise of certain artists and art genres.

Ultimately, and most importantly, they give a sense of what Meyer Schapiro might have seen and give a sense of how active he was as an art historian.

In the future, I’ll share a few exhibition announcements on this blog. Keep posted.