Professor Lee Johnson

Leading authority on Delacroix who produced a six-volume catalogue raisonné of the artist's work


Lee Frederick Johnson, art historian: born London 7 September 1924; Lecturer in the History of Art, University of Toronto 1960-63, Assistant Professor 1963-73, Professor 1973-84 (Emeritus); married Michelle Andrée Combes (died 2002; one son); died London 6 July 2006.

Lee Johnson was the leading authority on the French Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix. His first monograph on Delacroix was published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in 1963, the centenary year of the artist's death. Delacroix remains one of the best introductions to his art, subject-matter and technique.

Johnson was also responsible for the selection of works and for the catalogue entries of two exhibitions that framed the great commemorative manifestations organised in France in 1963. The first was shown in Toronto and Ottawa between December 1962 and February 1963 and included 45 works, mostly from North American collections. The second exhibition, in 1964, was held at the Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh and then at the Royal Academy, London; with its 201 works, it remains the largest exhibition on Delacroix ever organised in Great Britain. Johnson's detailed and exemplary entries for each painting clearly show that the seeds for his magnum opus, a catalogue raisonné of Delacroix's paintings, had already been sown.

A catalogue raisonné of Delacroix's entire output had been compiled by Alfred Robaut in 1885, and a summary one by Luigi Bortolatto in 1972. However, a new catalogue, which would provide a detailed critical assessment of Delacroix's paintings, incorporate changes of attribution and new discoveries, including many by Johnson himself, was now necessary.

The Paintings of Eugène Delacroix: a critical catalogue was published by Oxford University Press in three instalments of two volumes each, one for the text and one for the plates. The first two volumes came out in 1981, covering the period prior to the artist's journey to Morocco in 1832, and including the Salon paintings of the 1820s which established Delacroix as one of the greatest artists of the Romantic generation. Volumes three and four (1986), devoted to movable pictures and private decorations executed by Delacroix between 1832 and 1863, won Johnson, in 1987, the prestigious Mitchell Prize (awarded every other year to a book in English that makes an outstanding and original contribution to the study of the visual arts). The final volumes (1989) dealt with the public decorations and their sketches.

It is indicative of the nature of Delacroix studies, and also of the integrity and meticulousness of Johnson that volume three also contained the first supplement to the works already catalogued in the first two volumes. Another three of these supplements were published later, the last one in 2002. They record the later known ownership changes of pictures, complete their histories and provide photographs of paintings that have since come to light. They also include several revisions of opinions of authenticity, either upgrading or downgrading attributions. It is all the more remarkable that Johnson carried out this mammoth task single-handedly without research assistants.

Alongside the catalogue, Johnson wrote extensively on Delacroix and French art. Delacroix Pastels (1995) complemented the catalogue of the paintings, surveying all the extant pastels of the artist as well as listing all recorded but unlocated works. There were also two editions of newly discovered letters, Eugène Delacroix: further correspondence 1817-1863 (1991) and Nouvelles lettres (2000, with Michèle Hannoosh).

For nearly five decades, Johnson also contributed articles, notices and reviews in scholarly journals like The Burlington Magazine (some 45 articles between 1954 and 2003), Apollo, The Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, The Art Bulletin, Gazette des Beaux-Arts, Revue du Louvre, Bulletin de la Société de l'Histoire de l'Art Français and The J.Paul Getty Museum Journal. These often announced new discoveries of works or corrected previous errors and attributions.

Notable among these were the articles on his rediscovery in situ of the mural decorations Delacroix executed for the dining-room of the actor Talma and on other early decorative schemes, which provided a more complete picture of Delacroix's early work and activities in the period leading up to his first public success at the Salon of 1822 with Dante et Virgile aux Enfers. A volume bringing together a selection of Lee Johnson's articles, and his authoritative book and exhibition reviews on Delacroix and, to a lesser extent, Géricault, Bonington and other artists of the Romantic generation, would be invaluable to students of 19th-century art.

He was born in London in 1924, the elder of two children of Tommaso Bruno Bertuccioli and Carol Johnson. His father, a native of Pesaro, owned, at various times, a button factory, a silkworm factory, and an Italian grocery in Soho. His mother was from Uncasville, Connecticut and she met his father while studying drama in London. The family lived in Kent, at Farnborough and Lee was educated at the King's School, Canterbury and then at the Edinburgh Academy.

In 1940 he moved with his sister and mother to the United States, apparently on one of the last evacuation ships to leave England. He later joined the US Army, serving in a medical corps in the Pacific. It seems that his interests turned towards the study of art when he returned to England after the Second World War. He had, by then, following his parents' divorce, adopted his mother's surname.

After study in Paris and Perugia, he was admitted, in 1952, to the Courtauld Institute of Art to undertake an Academic Diploma in the History of European Art. He was taught at the Courtauld by Anthony Blunt who steered his researches towards the French art of the early 19th-century which was, as Lorenz Eitner wrote in 1954, "still a Dark Age in the history of art". Upon graduation from the Courtauld, and with Blunt's support, Johnson was awarded a French government scholarship to spend a year in Paris to do research on Delacroix.

His postgraduate work at King's College, Cambridge, between 1955 and 1958, resulted in his PhD thesis "Colour in Delacroix: theory and practice" (1959), also supervised by Blunt. By the end of his time in Cambridge Johnson had already established himself, through lecturing (from 1956) at the Courtauld and publishing a series of remarkable articles on Delacroix and Géricault in The Burlington Magazine, as an authority in early-19th-century French art.

In 1958 he went for a year to the Department of Fine Art, University of Toronto, and the following year he taught at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, returning to Toronto, to take up a lectureship there, in 1960. He became Assistant Professor in 1963 and Professor in 1973. During this period he taught for half the academic year in Toronto, and for the other half at Cambridge. He was appointed Professor Emeritus on his early retirement in 1984. Besides French art, he taught courses on 18th-century English watercolour painting. He was an inspirational teacher, with a great knowledge of various techniques, and his former students include numerous eminent art historians, curators and art dealers.

In the 1990s Johnson contributed to the catalogues of several Delacroix exhibitions: "Eugène Delacroix, 1798-1863: paintings, drawings, and prints from North American collections" in New York (1991), " Delacroix: le voyage au Maroc" in Paris (1994-95) and three exhibitions in 1998 celebrating the bicentenary of Delacroix's birth - "Eugène Delacroix ou la naissance d'un nouveau romantisme" (in Rouen), " Delacroix: les dernières années" (in Paris and then Philadelphia) and "Delacroix en Touraine" (Tours). Exhibition organisers, especially in France, felt that his contributions added a seal of authority to their undertakings. Official recognition in France came in 2000 when he was made Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, a title he much preferred to the more elevated but less romantic-sounding one of Officier which had been originally proposed to him.

He received, however, no official honours in his own country. Indeed, he was sometimes disappointed when he felt that his work had not been duly recognised as, for example, when he was not asked to contribute to the exhibition "Constable to Delacroix: British art and the French Romantics, 1820-1840" at Tate Britain in 2003, though a significant part of his researches concerned British and French artistic relations in the early 19th century. This was, in fact, the last exhibition he ever visited. He was, by then, suffering from Churg-Strauss Syndrome, an illness he bore with great stoicism and which had rendered him housebound since 2001.

His interest in art remained undiminished to the very end; he was always adding new material to his archive, reading voraciously, and eager to hear about new exhibitions. The death of his beloved wife Michelle in 2002 was a terrible blow and it is a measure of his great courage and determination that, despite his frail state, he undertook a long and complicated journey to her native village in theVendée region in France in order to disperse her ashes and place a plaque in her memory.

It is not surprising that a scholar of such fastidious methodology was occasionally impatient with "Gallic effusions" - the marginalia in his personal copy of the facsimile edition of Delacroix's Moroccan sketchbooks include a few "Blah, blah, blah"s - and he was not averse to vigorously argued criticism, however highly placed his opponent. He also disliked, and distanced himself from, the more extreme manifestations of "new" art history.

He was regularly consulted by dealers and collectors alike and, though he was always happy to assist with provenance questions and in authenticating works, his endurance was often tested by the persistent and unreasonable demands of hopeful owners. Above all he was offended by unjust criticism of "the Master". Only days before his death, he was enraged by Brian Sewell's description, in his review of the National Gallery's current exhibition, of Delacroix's smaller paintings as "squidgy" and "repellent".

Witty, entirely without self-importance, he was wonderful company. Friends remember with affection the Johnsons' generous hospitality in their cottage in Abington (near Cambridge) and, in later years, in Caversham and in London.

In a somewhat melancholy note, in the preface of the fourth supplement to his catalogue, referring to the recently auctioned and dispersed Achille Piron and Claude Roger-Marx archives, Johnson writes,

Although I have drawn on [these] archives in compiling this supplement, I have made no attempt fully to assimilate these vast new resources now dispersed among a variety of locations, and to collate them with Delacroix's entire painted oeuvre. This task I must leave to a younger generation of scholars.

The younger generation of scholars will have a hard task to measure up to, let alone surpass, Lee Johnson's achievements.

Chris Michaelides

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