Professor John Shearman

Distinguished historian of Italian Renaissance art
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The Independent Online

John Kinder Gowran Shearman, art historian: born 24 June 1931; Lecturer, Courtauld Institute 1957-67, Reader 1967-74, Deputy Director 1974-78, Professor of the History of Art 1974-79; FBA 1976; Professor, Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University 1979-87, Chairman 1979-85; Professor of Fine Arts, Harvard University 1987-94, Chairman of Department 1990-93; Adams University Professor, Harvard University 1994-2002 (Emeritus); married 1957 Jane Smith (deceased; one son, three daughters), 1983 Sally Roskill (marriage dissolved), 1998 Kathryn Brush; died 11 August 2003.

John Shearman was the most distinguished historian of Italian Renaissance art to have been produced by the Courtauld Institute.

Beginning his career there as an undergraduate, he proceeded to the PhD under the supervision of Professor Johannes Wilde, the visionary pupil of Max Dvorák. Shearman was passionately attached to the Courtauld Institute, then in its idiosyncratic setting of Home House, 20 Portman Square, London. Immediately after his doctorate he became a Lecturer, was promoted to a Readership in 1967, and became Professor of the History of Art in 1974. He was a Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton in 1964. In 1976 he was elected a Fellow of the British Academy, and he received its Serena Medal in 1979.

Unsuccessful in his application for the Directorship of the Courtauld Institute on the retirement of Sir Anthony Blunt, he afterwards served as Deputy Director for four years before becoming in 1979 Professor and Chairman of the History of Art Department at Princeton University. In 1987 he moved to the Department of History of Art and Architecture at Harvard, where he became Adams University Professor in 1994. He remained at Harvard until his retirement in 2002, when he became Emeritus Professor.

This apparently unruffled career of immense academic distinction gives only a partial picture of a complex man. From an army background John Kinder Gowran Shearman was educated at St Edmund's School, Hindhead, and at Felsted School. At the Courtauld Institute, he was a marvellous teacher of undergraduates and a lecturer, at his best, of electrifying intensity. He could be a devoted, almost paternal supervisor, but was less at ease with postgraduates, then a much rarer breed in England, and he could at times be a prickly and defensive colleague. But always he was a man of enormous instinctive intellectual generosity.

Part of his year was always spent sailing: he was a member of the Bembridge Club, and there he could be a formidably and joyously competitive sailor. His recent Festschrift is aptly named Turning About (2002). He was a passionate music-lover throughout his life, and could discuss it illuminatingly.

His early career at the Courtauld Institute coincided with that of another wunderkind, John White - together they were early to write an important paper on Raphael's tapestries and their cartoons for the Art Bulletin (1958) - work which later Shearman partially disowned as "too rigid an analysis of appearances", when in he wrote his definitive account of the tapestries and Raphael's cartoons (Raphael's Cartoons in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen and the Tapestries for the Sistine Chapel, 1972), and as he became less confident of definitive solutions.

It was a period which saw the professionalisation of the History of Art in England, the expansion of the Courtauld Institute and the pervasive spread of its influence in universities and museums. Apart from the lasting impact of his teacher Johannes Wilde, the presence of great émigré scholars in London like Rudolf Wittkower, whose lectures on Italian architecture he heard as an undergraduate, deeply stimulated his interest. The work of Ernst Gombrich, and particularly his Art and Illusion (1960) was, he declared, always at the back of his mind.

Shearman's doctoral thesis was soberly entitled "Developments in the use of Colour in Tuscan Paintings of the Early 16th Century" (1957). It was a subject almost wholly neglected in England, although very important work on the topic had already been done by such eminent German scholars as Theodor Hetzer and Wolfgang Schöne. The thesis still remains unpublished, but it none the less had an incalculable effect on generations of scholars. Some parts of it resurfaced in seminal articles such as "Leonardo's colour and chiaroscuro" in the Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte (1962).

Shearman's first monograph was on Andrea del Sarto, a painter who he felt passionately had been underestimated by the current standard histories of Florentine art. It appeared in 1965, two years after the appearance of another monograph on Sarto by the Harvard-based art historian Sydney Freedberg, who remained a life-long friend. In the following year the devastating Florence flood took enormous emotional and physical toll. He rushed out to the stricken city to help in the rescue efforts, and the short-term effect of that experience on him was shattering, not dissimilar indeed to the impact on the great German student of Gothic sculpture Wilhelm Vöge, of the shelling of his beloved Reims cathedral by his countrymen in 1914.

His book Mannerism appeared nevertheless in 1967. The fundamental themes of this epoch-making book had been trailed in an austerely titled paper "Maniera as an Aesthetic Ideal" delivered at the 20th International Congress of the History of Art held at Princeton in 1961. As Shearman breezily remarked in the opening page of the first edition, it was confusion about the meaning of the term which provoked him to write the book, and also the then prevalent position that Mannerism did not even exist as a phenomenon. For him its proper definition was a problem of method. The resultant book was as stylish as the style it described. Even now, when Mannerism has gone through many editions, and one can sense its impact subsiding, the change it wrought upon perceptions of the art of the early 16th century and the break-up of the High Renaissance moment of equilibrium remains profound.

Two luminous publications which grew out of this creative engagement with Mannerism were the Charlton Lecture at Newcastle University on "Pontormo's Altarpiece in S. Felicità" (1971), where the corpse of the Saviour is lowered to the tomb by a group of eerily distraught mourners as the Virgin bids farewell, and the article on the equally moving Dead Christ supported by Angels by Pontormo's contemporary Rosso Fiorentino in the Boston Museum Bulletin of 1966. Mannerism confirmed his reputation as an international star of exceptional magnitude, as respected in Europe and the United States as he was revered in Britain.

For Wilde the place for which a work had been painted, and the light in which it was seen, were vital. These concerns lodged deep in Shearman's sensibility and he developed them to new levels of subtlety and sophistication. He delivered A.W. Mellon lectures at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 1988 on the theme "Only Connect . . . Art and the Spectator in the Italian Renaissance". The opening lecture aptly characterises the author himself - a more engaged spectator. The observer is seen as moving from the growing awareness of his place and involvement, so to speak "completing the plot", until finally the artist can confidently assume the observer's complicity. It was evident that, as Shearman wrote in his preface about the Theory of Reception (Rezeptionsgeschichte) ". . . no other new critical technique has changed my thinking as much".

Shearman was greatly concerned about degrees of access in specific artistic situations. However, his beholder is an ideal beholder - at times perilously similar to the late 20th-century art-historian produced by the Courtauld Institute - a construct helping us discern the work's expected reception. But this approach rarely considers a plurality of views or of viewers. Shearman's painters and indeed his own reconstructions seem at times to exist in a somewhat sanitised space, remote from the cacophony of competing claims on the visitor's attention which surely constituted the reality of the late medieval or early Renaissance church interior. That the work of art and its spectator might be reciprocally interpreting entities was hardly considered.

One book project which will not now see the light of day is the volume originally planned as part of the Pelican History of Art on Quattrocento painting in Italy. Shearman kept a lively interest in the Quattrocento throughout his career. His writings included a brilliantly original taxonomy of the placement in the painted church of Piero della Francesca's Brera Madonna (1968). The substantial Catalogue of The Early Italian Paintings in the Collection of Her Majesty The Queen (1983) contains what is still the best single sustained piece of writing on a painting by Gentile da Fabriano.

Shearman maintained a long-standing (and surely justified) scepticism about the usefulness of the term "International Gothic" when applied to sculptors and artists such as Ghiberti and Lorenzo Monaco, and one of his last publications concerned the identity of the mysterious collaborator of Gherardo Starnina, the early 15th-century Florentine painter active in Valencia and Toledo. His extraordinarily creative attempt (1966) to reconstruct Masaccio's path-breaking altarpiece painted for the chapel of a conservative local notary Ser Giuliano degli Scarsi in the Carmelite church at Pisa in 1426 has resonated until the present day, and in a collaborative effort between the Opificio delle Pietre Dure at Florence and the National Gallery in London scholars are still wrestling with the consequences of that explosive interpretation.

But Raphael lay at the core of his life's work. John Shearman was in some sense always preparing himself to write the definitive work on Raphael. He wished above all to elucidate the painter's profound sense of purpose and his extraordinary intellectual agility. To the often mesmerised undergraduates at the Courtauld he was giving a series of 10 lectures devoted to Raphael in the early 1960s. A number of seminal articles followed, all of which changed fundamentally the acepted view of that protean artist. They ranged from the brilliant investigation of the decoration of the Chapel of the Sienese banker Agostino Chigi in Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome (1961) to subsequent meditations on clouds in Raphael and Correggio (1984).

With two works of the early 1970s the level of concentration once again deepened. First came the British Academy Italian Lecture (1971) "The Vatican Stanze : functions and decoration", which in its published format had 20 pages of text buttressed by 34 pages of occasionally lethal footnotes. In Raphael's Cartoons in the Collection of her Majesty the Queen and the Tapestries for the Sistine Chapel, 1972, an idiosyncratic part of the programme for cataloguing the Royal Collections developed by Anthony Blunt, a marked change of approach can be discerned. He became more of a historian, and the focus shifted permanently towards Rome.

Shearman increasingly did not believe in clean breaks with the past. The book has a curious format, with the voluminous notes assembled around the page margins, giving it the appearance of some great medieval glossator's manuscript. He now concentrated less on how Raphael drew and more on what brought the drawings into being, and why they now appear to us as they do. But the great work of synthesis of which perhaps he alone was capable will not now be written.

Most fortunately, however, the majestic series of documents which he assembled over the last decades on Raphael and his works, will shortly be published by the Bibliotheca Hertziana under the auspices of the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft. This in itself constitutes a towering achievement, running to some 2,000 pages in proof. Raphael will be documented as no other artist of the High Renaissance, and the book will assuredly provide John Shearman with a permanent monument. He influenced the development of art history in Britain and abroad as did few others : his loss, still at the height of his powers, is irreparable.

Julian Gardner