Meyer Schapiro (23 September 1904 – 3 March 1996) was a Lithuanian-born American art historian known for forging new art historical methodologies that incorporated an interdisciplinary approach to the study of works of art. An expert on early Christian, Medieval, and Modern art, Schapiro explored art historical periods and movements with a keen eye towards the social, political, and the material construction of art works.
Credited with fundamentally changing the course of the art historical discipline, Schapiro’s scholarly approach was dynamic and it engaged other scholars, philosophers, and artists. An active professor, lecturer, writer, and humanist, Schapiro maintained a long professional association with Columbia University in New York as a student, lecturer, and professor.
Meir Schapiro was born in Šiauliai, Russian Empire (present-day Lithuania) on September 23, 1904. His ancestors were Talmudic scholars. His parents were Nathan Menachem Schapiro and Fanny Adelman Schapiro.
In 1906, his father came to New York City and found a job as a Hebrew teacher at the Yitzcak Elchanan Yeshiva on the Lower East Side. Once secure, he sent for his family, who emigrated in 1907. On Ellis Island, Schapiro’s first name was changed from “Meir” to “Meyer.” He grew up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, where he was first exposed to art in evening classes taught by John Sloan at the Hebrew Educational Society.
He went to school at Public School 84 and then Boys High School in Brooklyn. He attended lectures on anthropology and economics at the Young People’s Socialist League During summers, he worked as a Western Union delivery boy, a warehouse packer, an electrical-supply assembler, and an adjustment clerk at Macy’s.
In 1920, Meyer Schapiro, age 16, entered Columbia University as both a Pulitzer and Regents scholar. His professors included Mark Van Doren and Franz Boas. Undergraduate classmates included Whittaker Chambers, Clifton Fadiman, Herbert Solow, Lionel Trilling, Henry Zolinsky, and Louis Zukofsky, with many of whom he contributed to the The Morningside literary magazine. In 1923, he traveled to Europe with Chambers and Zolinsky to Europe. During his undergraduate days, he became known for his intellectual “Schapiric victories.”  In 1924, he received his bachelor’s degree with honors in art history and philosophy.
Princeton University denied him admission for his doctorate, so he continued at Columbia and earned his doctoral degree in art history in 1929. His professors then included Ernest DeWald. His five-year dissertation examined the cloister and portal of the Moissac abbey, built about A.D. 1100:
Dr. Schapiro’s research went far beyond the implications of Moissac itself. Medieval church history, liturgy, theology, social history, illuminated manuscripts, folklore, epigraphy, the analysis of ornament and national characteristics (real or imagined) all were pressed into service and synthesized. As a result, what had been thought of as antiquarian artifacts were seen to have a completely different character. “A new sphere of artistic creation,” Dr. Schapiro called it, “without religious content and imbued with values of spontaneity, individual fantasy, delight in color and movement, and the expression of feelings that anticipate modern art. This new art, on the margins of religious work, was accompanied by a conscious taste of the spectators for the beauty of workmanship, materials and artistic devices, apart from religious meanings.”
(In 1975, he received his third degree from Columbia, an honorary doctor of letters.)
Schapiro spent his entire working career at Columbia. In 1928, he began teaching as a lecturer, before completing his dissertation. In 1936, he became assistant professor. In 1946, he became associate professor. In 1952, he became a full professor. In 1965, he was named University Professor. In 1973, he became University Professor Emeritus in 1973. His final, weekly class at Columbia was “Theory and Methods of Investigation in Art.”
He lectured at New York University (1932-1936), the New School for Social Research (1936-1952), Harvard University as the Charles Norton Lecturer (1966-1967), and Oxford University as Slade Professor of Art (1968). He was a visiting lecturer at the College de France in Paris in May 1974.
Schapiro partook in the First American Artists’ Congress Against War and Fascism in 1935, which produced a petition signed by more than 300 artists including co-founders Stuart Davis, Adolph Dehn, William Gropper, Hugo Gellert, Saul Schary, and Moses Soyer as well as fellow artists Milton Avery, Ilya Bolotowsky, Alexander Calder, Adolph Gottlieb, Jack Kufeld, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, J. B. Neumann, Isamu Noguchi, Saul Schary, Ben Shahn, Raphael Soyer, James Johnson Sweeney, Max Weber, George Biddle, Paul Cadmus, Adolf Dehn, Philip Evergood, Lorser Feitelson, and Lewis Mumford. Schapiro and Gottlieb publicly resigned within the month when the congress failed to condemn the Soviet invasion of Finland. Schapiro and other dissenters including Mark Rothko, Gottlieb, Harris, and Bolotowsky condemned dictatorships in Germany, Russia, Italy, Spain and Japan and founded a Cultural Committee which became the Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors.
Schapiro was a proponent of modern art, and published books on Van Gogh and Cézanne and various essays on modern art. He was a founder of Dissent, along with Irving Howe and Michael Harrington. From 1966–1967 Schapiro was the Norton professor at Harvard University.
Schapiro’s discourse on style is often considered his greatest contribution to the study of art history. According to Schapiro, style refers to the formal qualities and visual characteristics of a piece of art. Schapiro demonstrated that style could be used not only as an identifier of a particular period but also as a diagnostic tool. Style is indicative of the artist and the culture at large. It reflects the economic and social circumstances in which an artist works and breathes and reveals underlying cultural assumptions and normative values. On the other hand our own descriptions of form and style indicate our period, our concerns, and our biases; the way art historians of a particular age talk about style is also indicative of their cultural context.
Schapiro’s brother was financier Morris Schapiro. His grand-nephew is artist Jacob Collins.
In 1931, Schapiro married pediatrician Lillian Milgram. They had two children, Miriam Schapiro Grosof and Ernest Schapiro.
He died in 1996 in New York at the age of 91 in the Greenwich Village house where he had lived since 1933.
Source: Wikipedia. Web. 09 Nov 2014.
Photo: Arthur Mones (American, 1919-1998). Meyer Schapiro, 1980. Gelatin silver photograph, 13 1/2 x 10 1/2 in. Brooklyn Museum, Gift of the artist, 1994.138. © Estate of Arthur Mones