Art Historian and Critic
New York, NY, USA
Summary of Meyer Schapiro
Meyer Schapiro was a critic, teacher, and art historian who spent most of his life in New York City after emigrating from Lithuania as a child. In the 1940s and '50s, Schapiro delivered many lectures that were attended regularly by many of the well-known modern artists of the time. Schapiro was a huge proponent of modern art as well as a close friend and adviser to many artists, such as Willem de Kooning and Robert Motherwell, who benefited from Schapiro's vast knowledge of art history and theories on aesthetics and perspective. More so than many of his critical contemporaries, Schapiro was a learned expert on matters of art history and theory, which made his opinions all the more valuable to the many artists he lectured to and socialized with.
- Schapiro was, above all else, a teacher and an intellectual who believed that all art must be appreciated within a specific context and that any great art is linked to the social and economic conditions of its time.
- Schapiro's ideas about art and culture were firmly rooted in the teachings and writings of Georg Hegel, the German philosopher, who believed that the spirit and significance of art is constantly being reinvented in different times and places.
- When it came to modern art, Schapiro looked to ancient forms of art (Roman and Greek sculpture, religious art, different forms of folklore, etc.) as possible influences, refuting the perspective that they are merely historical documents.
- In addition to modern and abstract art, Schapiro was also an accomplished scholar of Romanesque sculpture, but surprisingly, he did not consider this specialty to be separate from his love for modern art. When it came to discussions and studies on modernism, Schapiro made sure that ancient art history was an integral part of the lesson.
Biography of Meyer Schapiro
The descendent of Talmudic scholars, he was born Meir Schapiro in Lithuania to Nathan Menachem Schapiro and Fanny Adelman Schapiro. Nathan had abandoned the Orthodox Jewish faith and was influenced by an Eastern European enlightenment movement that favored Western secular learning.
In an excerpt from Schapiro's book on Paul Cézanne, he writes in reference to Cézanne's Portrait of Chocquet: "And as in [Cézanne's] landscapes, we follow the action of the brush everywhere, spirited and frank in creating a thick fleshy paste of pigment, rich in flicker, direction, and tone."
There is an interesting story concerning Schapiro and this peculiar still life by Vincent van Gogh. In a heated exchange with the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, with whom Schapiro sharply disagreed on many topics concerning art, they discussed the origins of van Gogh's A Pair of Shoes. Heidegger believed that the boots once belonged to a peasant, thus, the portrait was meant to reflect the state of peasant life. Schapiro, on the other hand, saw something of the artist himself in this work, and argued that "the idea of the shoe as a symbol of [van Gogh's] life-long practice of walking, and an ideal of life as a pilgrimage." Schapiro was able to find deeper meaning, a reflection of the artist's life in the portrait. Furthermore, since van Gogh painted many still lifes of shoes, it's still up for debate as to which portrait the two men were discussing.
In his famous lecture, 'The Unity of Picasso's Art,' Schapiro wrote: "Picasso enters the scene of European painting with an astonishing diversity of practice." According to Schapiro, Picasso had no singular style, but a mastery of nearly every style. In Evocation (one of several paintings devoted to his recently deceased friend Carles Casagemas), the artist employs some elements of European religious art and combines them with provocative imagery (nudes and prostitutes, for example). Schapiro pointed out that it contains a "unity" and "disunity" unfolding at once and is symptomatic of the artist's work as a whole, "for one cannot help but notice also in Picasso's work that at the very same moment he is able to paint and to draw in several different styles, he is not bound to a particular way of working at a moment."
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Meyer Schapiro
- Meyer Schapiro Abroad: Letters to Lillian and Travel NotebooksBy Daniel Esterman
- Modern Art: 19th and 20th Centuries: Selected PapersBy Meyer Schapiro, Adrienne Baxter Bell
- Romanesque Art: Selected PapersBy Meyer Schapiro
- Romanesque Architectural Sculpture: The Charles Eliot Norton LecturesBy Meyer Schapiro, Linda Seidel
- Vincent van GoghBy Meyer Schapiro
- CézanneBy Meyer Schapiro
- The Unity of Picasso's ArtBy Meyer Schapiro
- Impressionism: Reflections and PerceptionsBy Meyer Schapiro
- Theory and Philosophy of Art: Style, Artist, and SocietyBy Meyer Schapiro
- Worldview in Paining - Art and Society: Selected PapersBy Meyer Schapiro
- Various excerpts from Schapiro's book Cézanne
- The Liberating Quality of Avant-Garde Art1957 article about modern art, originally published in ARTnews
- Meyer Schapiro, Art Historian and Critic, Dies at 91The New York Times / March 4, 1996
- Meyer Schapiro: The Presence of the SubjectBy Marshall Berman / New Politics / Winter 1996
- A Critic Turns 90; Meyer SchapiroBy Deborah Solomon / The New York Times Magazine / August 14, 1994
- Meyer Schapiro in Show at Columbia U.By John Russell / The New York Times / May 1, 1987
- Isaiah Berlin and Meyer Schapiro: An ExchangeLetters by Berlin and Schapiro, published in The Brooklyn Rail, September 2004
- The Unity of Picasso's Art: A Master Lecture by Professor Meyer Schapiro (1986)A documentary film, directed by Philip Gittelman