Professor Robert Rosenblum

Art historian and Guggenheim Museum curator celebrated for his contrariness


Robert Rosenblum, art historian and curator: born New York 24 July 1927; Professor of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University 1956-66; Professor of Fine Arts, New York University 1967-2006; Slade Professor of Fine Art, Oxford University 1971-72; Curator, Guggenheim Museum 1996-2006; married 1977 Jane Kaplowitz (one son, one daughter); died New York 6 December 2006.

It was typical of Robert Rosenblum that he was curating exhibitions on both sides of the Atlantic at the time of his death; Rosenblum's energy was undiminished even in his 80th year and stricken with colon cancer. The shows, in Paris and Houston, reflect the extent to which the Manhattan dentist's son had stormed the barricades of European art history. (Rosenblum's 1967 masterpiece Transformations in Late 18th Century Art remains the most important work on French Revolutionary painting.) But they also hint at another Rosenblumian trait, namely his impishness.

The first show, "Portraits Publics, Portraits Privés", at the Grand Palais, is the sort of exhibition you'd expect from a historian of Rosenblum's stature: a scholarly, if slightly dull, romp through portraiture from 1770 to 1830. (This will move to the Royal Academy in London in February under the name "Citizens and Kings".) The second, at Houston's Museum of Fine Arts, is not. Called "Best in Show", its subject is the dog in art from Jacopo Bassano to Jeff Koons, via Titian, Gerrit Dou and Sir Edwin Landseer. Its breadth of period and air of whimsy - Rosenblum was notoriously devoted to a pet bulldog called Archie - is the kind of thing to make serious art curators curl their toes. Yet, as often in his career, it is this apparently shallower work that is the more interesting and, perhaps, more important.

Although he questioned the term, Rosenblum was a postmodernist. Schooled at Yale in the art-historical rules of genre and period, he delighted in breaking both. Transformations wasn't just about the late 18th century: its real interest lay in the birth of modernist painting a hundred years later.

His biggest recent show in London, the Royal Academy's "1900: art at the crossroads" (2000), looked sideways rather than forwards and back. The notion that modernism was a French invention that developed outside the art-historical mainstream was knocked on the head: Scott Tuke bathers were hung next to baigneuses by Cézanne, Alma-Tadema nudes side by side with Degas'. Speaking at a recent symposium to honour Rosenblum, a colleague remarked that "thanks to Bob, art history has become a smorgasbord . . . rather than the table d'hôte of strictly Gallic dishes it had been for generations". Apparently oblivious to this, the French government appointed him to the Légion d'honneur in 2003.

There is little doubt that Rosenblum's insistent eclecticism changed the face of late 20th-century curating. His reshuffling of the art-historical pack was echoed in the anti-chronological hangs at the Musée d'Orsay and Tate Modern. Like those hangs, Rosenblum's brand of relativism had its detractors. Reviewing "1900" during its run at the Guggenheim, the New York Times critic huffed that it was "hard to remember the last time so many bad pictures were in one place at one time," adding, viperishly, "unless you consider eBay to be a place". To get what Rosenblum was up to in a show, you had to understand the rules he was breaking. This was fine for his fellow art historians, but could leave non-expert visitors with the sense of having wandered into a souk.

But Rosenblum was secure in his own world view, and so none of this bothered him much. In a field where specialisation tends to be ever more narrowly focused, he refused to be tied to a period or place. After the triumph of Transformations, he confounded colleagues at New York University, where he taught until his death, by deserting French art for German. His Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition: Friedrich to Rothko (1975) repeated the success of the first book by forging an improbable link between two artists working a century apart.

Occasionally, Rosenblum's fondness for rocking the boat could be mistaken for grandstanding. In 2001, he co-curated an exhibition at the Guggenheim of the work of Norman Rockwell - an illustrator whose anodyne, Evening Post images of America made "Best in Show" 's pooches look positively dry. ("If I can enjoy Frank Capra, why can't I enjoy Norman Rockwell?" reasoned Rosenblum.)

Even friends described this "as the crowning achievement of Rosenblumian contrariness", although his public reviling of Edward Hopper may have run it a close second. His taste for what he called "the messy mix" of High and Low extended beyond the realms of art. "Bob could be discussing some fine point in Picasso's development and then turn to a topic like airline menus, in which he had a great interest," recalls a colleague.

At best, this breadth of vision produced extraordinary results: Rosenblum's book Introducing Gilbert & George (2004) is as full of insight as his works on Friedrich or the French Revolution. The stable of his students is legendary, both in its size and its range of interests: Rosenblum described himself as a "soup-to-nuts" teacher, which, for 40 years, he was.

This description also gives an idea of life at the Greenwich Village house he shared with his wife, the artist Jane Kaplowitz. Furnished with a dazzling mix of great art and junk, the Rosenblum household was endlessly convivial. As with his writing, you might find yourself there in the presence of a great artist or of a nobody to whom Rosenblum had taken a shine, both of them treated with equal respect.

Charles Darwent

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Extras
indybest
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Sport
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
football
News
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Poet’s corner: Philip Larkin at the venetian window of his home in 1958
booksOr caring, playful man who lived for others? A new book has the answer
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
art
News
Matthew McConaughey and his son Levi at the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros at Fenway Park on August 17, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts.
advertisingOscar-winner’s Lincoln deal is latest in a lucrative ad production line
Life and Style
Pick of the bunch: Sudi Pigott puts together roasted tomatoes with peppers, aubergines and Labneh cheese for a tomato-inspired vegetarian main dish
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Support, Help desk)

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Learning, SQL, Brokerage)

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Lea...

UNIX Application Support Analyst- Support, UNIX, London

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: UNIX Application Support Analyst-...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape