Schapiro, Meyer, 1904-1996

Alternative names
Birth 1904-09-23
Death 1996-03-03

Biographical notes:

Educator, art critic, and professor of fine arts at Columbia University, 1928-1965, University Professor, 1965-1973, Prof. Schapiro (Columbia Univ BA, 1924; MA 1926, Ph.D., 1929) died in 1996.

From the description of Meyer Schapiro Correspondence with Whittaker Chambers and James Thomas Farrell, 1923-1991. (Columbia University In the City of New York). WorldCat record id: 467178770

d. March 3, 1996.

From the description of Artist file : miscellaneous uncataloged material. (Museum of Modern Art (MOMA)). WorldCat record id: 83235814

BIOGHIST REQUIRED Educator, art critic, and professor of fine arts at Columbia University, 1928-1965, University Professor, 1965-1973, Prof. Schapiro (Columbia Univ BA, 1924; MA 1926, Ph.D., 1929) died in 1996.

From the guide to the Meyer Schapiro Letters and Manuscripts of Whittaker Chambers and James Thomas Farrel, 1923-1991., (Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library, )

Art historian, New York, N.Y. Died March 4, 1996.

Schapiro met Gandy Brodie in 1946. He wrote a catalog introduction for a Brodie exhibition, 1967, eulogy for his memorial service, 1975, and a catalog introduction for a Forrest Bess retrospective at the Betty Parsons Gallery, 1962.

From the description of Meyer Schapiro papers, 1949-1982. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 767864344

Art historian, New York, N.Y. Died March 4, 1996.

Schapiro met Gandy Brodie in 1946. He wrote a catalog introduction a Brodie exhibition, 1967, eulogy for his memorial service, 1975, and a catalog introduction for a Forrest Bess retrospective at the Betty Parsons Gallery, 1962.

From the description of Meyer Schapiro papers, 1949-1982. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 122565462

BIOGHIST REQUIRED Meyer Schapiro was a preeminent 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 as a student, lecturer, and professor.

1904-1919: Childhood and early education

Meyer Schapiro was born in Šiauliai, Lithuania on September 23, 1904 to a Jewish family that immigrated to the United States in 1907, when Schapiro was three years old. Meyer was the second of four children (Morris, 1903; Meyer, 1904; Mary, 1906; and Jacob 1911) to the parents Menahem (Nathan) and Fayge (Fannie) Schapiro.

Prior to moving to the United States, Schapiro's father Nathan was a child of the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) movement in Lithuania. Nathan lost interest in religious studies and become, by his own account, a politically active free thinker that disassociated with religion and migrated towards an engagement with the secular world. These philosophical traits where transmitted to his son, Meyer, who actively engaged in a wide range of artistic, educational, and political pursuits in his early age.

The Schapiro family moved to the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, where Schapiro attended Public School 84 and/or 85 and graduated from the Boys High School, where he graduated and where one of his activities was to be involved in the Latin club. Schapiro's political and artistic pursuits at this time included being active with the Young People's Socialist League and attending evening art classes taught by painter John Sloan at the Hebrew Settlement Home.

1920-1929: Columbia University and Schapiro's college years:

Schapiro entered Columbia College in 1920 at the age of 16 with three scholarships, the Columbia, the Pulitzer, and the New York State Regents. He graduated with a bachelor of arts in 1924. His course load included a wide variety of classes on literature, anthropology, philosophy, mathematics, and art history and was influenced by his professors Franz Boas and John Dewey. Two of his roommates in his college years would continue to be his friends throughout his life, Clifton (Kip) Fadiman and Whittaker Chambers.

Schapiro would continue his graduate work at Columbia University, where he completed his master's thesis "The sculptures of Moissac" in 1926. As a graduate student at Columbia, Schapiro worked with Professor Ernest DeWald and took many of his classes, as evidenced by his course notes in his archival collection. During his college years, Schapiro was influenced by the art historian A. Kingsley Porter and, through his knowledge of Yiddish, learned French and German and became acquainted with the work of Wilhelm Vöge and Alois Riegl.

To complete research for his doctoral dissertation, Schapiro traveled for the first time to Europe and the Near East in 1926 through 1927 on a grant awarded by the Carnegie Corporation. This period of his life is documented in the Getty publication, Meyer Schapiro abroad: letters to Lillian and travel notebooks.

Schapiro completed his doctoral dissertation "The Romanesque sculpture of Moissac" in 1929 and his PhD was the fist in fine arts and archeology awarded by Columbia University. In 1931, Selections of his dissertation were published in the journal The Art Bulletin to critical praise because of his methodology of synthesizing diverse ideas to reinterpret the artistic production of the Romanesque. While Schapiro completed his academic work in 1929, he would not be conferred his doctoral degree until 1935 due to administrative bureaucracy. Schapiro's academic success at Columbia was unparalleled, and he was appointed to the faculty of fine arts in 1928, the same year he was married to Lillian Milgram Schapiro, a pediatrician who graduated from New York University and specialized on childhood tuberculosis.

1930-1949: The cultivation of Schapiro's professional life and the pre-war political horizon:

Schapiro's professional and scholarly life began to ascend as soon as earned his doctorate. His writings and reviews began to appear throughout journals, magazines, and newspapers. Schapiro's critique of historians using schematic approaches to understanding art and its production began in the early 1930s, such as his review of La Stylistique Ornamentale dans la Sculpture Romane by Jurgis Baltrusaitis.

In 1933, Schapiro moved with his wife, Lillian Milgram Schapiro, to the Greenwich Village neighborhood in New York City, where he would reside until his death in 1996.

Schapiro would continue to engage with politics, such as participating in the first American Artists' Congress in 1936, where he delivered the paper "The Social Bases of Art." But he was adamant of not reducing art to a disciplinary schema. As he writes in the aforementioned article, he sought not to "reduce art to economics or sociology or politics." He would continue to publish in political magazines such as The Marxist Quarterly, where he published "The Nature of Abstract Art," yet another critique on his friend Alfred H. Barr, Jr.'s exhibition "Cubism and Abstract Art."

In the 1930s, Schapiro visited Europe twice, once in 1931 and the other in 1939. He would meet and become acquaintances with many individuals associated with the Vienna School of art history, such as Ernst Gombrich, Emil Kaufmann, Otto Pächt, Hans Sedlmayr, and Fritz Saxl. Schapiro broke off his communication with Sedlmayr in the mid-1930s due to his increasing anti-Semitism. At the urging of his friend Theodor Adorno, Schapiro met with Walter Benjamin in 1939 in Paris, several months before the philosopher's death.

Throughout the years proceeding and following World War II, Schapiro was a consistent point of contact for refugees fleeing the hostile and repressive climate of Germany and Russia. He was a point of contact for many German and Jewish academics, philosophers, and artists fleeing Europe for the United States and he was a vocal critic of repressive regimes, such as Nazism and Fascism. After the atrocities committed under Stalin, Schapiro became disillusioned with politics, yet he continued his admiration for the political and maintained correspondence with political figures such as Leon Trotsky.

In 1936, Schapiro would be promoted to Assistant Professor at Columbia University and, by 1948, he would become an Associate Professor at the university.

Schapiro had an admiration for artists and continually sought to nurture their intellectual acuity through his lectures. Many artists have credited Schapiro with developing their historical and philosophical understanding of art history, especially at Columbia University, where students such as Helen Frankenthaler, Robert Motherwell and Ad Reinhardt attended his courses.

That Schapiro was a practicing artist himself added to his interest in being in constant dialogue with artists. As Wolf Kahn once noted, "For Meyer Schapiro art making and art history have always appeared as intrinsically related. What brings them together is seeing."

Throughout 1930s and 1940s, Schapiro was also a lecturer at New York University, New School for Social Research, and the Pierpont Morgan Library. Many artists became aware of his lectures, teaching methodologies, and philosophies through those venues, such as Alice Neel, Barnett Newman, Gordon Onslow-Ford, and Frank Stella.

1950-1979: Schapiro's continued rise as a prominent American art historian:

Starting in the 1950s, Schapiro's professional career became ever more active. In April 1950, he was invited by the gallery owner Samuel Kootz to co-curate with art critic Clement Greenberg the exhibition "Talent 1950: 23 artists receive a showing under the sponsorship of Meyer Schapiro and Clement Greenberg." He first books were also published in that decade, Vincent van Gogh in 1950 and Paul Cézanne in 1952. His theories on style, form, content, and abstraction continued to be developed, and he became an ongoing advocate of Modern art.

While the end of World War II and the on-going anti-Communism in the United States were sources of disillusionment for the political left in the late 1940s and early 1950s, several New York intellectuals, including Schapiro and Irving Howe, founded the political magazine Dissent.

Schapiro continued to teach at Columbia University and in 1952 he was promoted to Professor and in 1965 became a University Professor, the second such honor bestowed to a faculty member at Columbia at the time. His students in the 1950s and 1960s at Columbia and other institutions include several prominent artists, such as Allen Ginsberg, Donald Judd, Allan Kaprow, and Jack Kerouac.

Throughout the 1960s, Schapiro became a highly regarded fellow, visiting professor, and guest lecturer, both in the United States and Europe. In 1961, he delivered the Patten lectures at Indiana University which was devoted to Impressionism. Schapiro was a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences from 1962 to 1963 at Stanford University. In 1965, he delivered the Weil Lecture at the Frank L. Weil Institute at Hebrew Union College. In 1966, Schapiro was the Charles Eliot Norton Professor at Harvard University, where he delivered the now published lectures on Romanesque architectural sculpture. At Oxford University, he was the Slade Professor in 1968. In that capacity, he delivered the Slade Lectures in the Fine Arts that was focused on Abstract art.

His work in both Romanesque and Modern art continued to be published in the 1960s. In 1964, the College Art Association of America published Schapiro's The Parma Ildefonsus: A Romanesque Illuminated Manuscript from Cluny, and Related Works. Schapiro's most famous published work of that decade, however, was the 1968 article "The Still Life as Personal Object" which rejected Martin Heidegger's philosophical interpretation of a painting by Vincent van Gogh that depicted a pair of shoes. Schapiro's article became a touchstone for the study of iconographical interpretation, semiotics, and art history.

In 1966, Schapiro received two recognitions: an honorary degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the Brandeis Commission Award for Notable Achievement from Brandeis University.

Schapiro's intellectual interest in semiotics and its relation to visual representation was made apparent in the 1973 publication Words and Pictures: On the Literal and the Symbolic in the Illustration of a Text.

By the early 1970s, Schapiro's influence in the field of art history began to be recognized in various forms at Columbia University. By 1973, he was promoted to the position of University Professor Emeritus. In 1975, he received an honorary doctorate from the university and also accepted the Alexander Hamilton Medal awarded by the Columbia College Alumni Association.

In 1974, a committee was formed to establish a chair in art history at Columbia University in Schapiro's honor. The group, who included George Jaffin, Barnett Newman, and William Rubin amongst others, was known as the Committee to Endow a Chair in Honor of Meyer Schapiro, and organized several artists to create original prints in an edition of 100 for a portfolio to raise funds for the position. Artists who contributed included Stanley William Hayter, Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Alexander Liberman, Roy Lichtensetein, André Masson, Robert Motherwell, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg, Saul Steinberg, Frank Stella, and Andy Warhol.

Schapiro taught his last Columbia University course, which focused on Romanesque sculpture, in 1977.

By the late 1970s he was awarded several prestigious awards. The National Institute of Arts and Letters gave Schapiro the "Distinguished work in the arts" award in 1976. In 1977, the country of France bestowed its highest honor, the Commandeur de l'Order des Arts et des Lettres, to Schapiro.

At this time, Schapiro began to assemble his writings from the 1930s in order to publish them as collected volumes. The publishing firm George Braziller, Inc began to this project in 1977 with the first volume Selected Papers I: Romanesque Art. In 1978, the second volume Selected Papers II: Modern Art: 19th and 20th Centuries was published and, by 1979, Schapiro's third volume of collected papers, Selected Papers III: Late Antique, Early Christian, and Medieval Art, was released.

1980-1996: The final years and continued legacy:

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Schapiro would continue to lecture on the two art periods he was an expert on: Romanesque and Modern art. In 1979, his lecture " Hiberno-Saxon art: experiment with forms" was given at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and in 1980 he delivered the lecture "The unity of Picasso's art" at Columbia University.

In 1987, Rainer Crone and Elizabeth Ferrer curated the exhibition "Meyer Schaipro: Works of Art, 1919-1979" at Columbia University's Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery. For the first time, the public was able to view 65 works of art that Schapiro had created and finally introduced Schapiro to the public as a draftsman and painter. The exhibition also included a publication with essays by Thomas B. Hess and Wolf Kahn.

Throughout the 1980s, Schapiro, with the support of his wife Lillian Milgram Schapiro, focused on organizing and editing published and unpublished material and compiling these as sources for future publication. In many instances, these manuscripts were never published and included titles such as "Pablo Picasso's Guernica, " "The serpent with a woman's head in the temptation of Eve: researches on the invention of an image," "Sigmund Freud's Gradiva, " "Words in pictures: the perspectives of the viewer and the reader," "Relativity and the interpretation of modern painting," "Vico on the visual arts," and "Wolvinius Magister Phaber: the crowning of an artist in the early Middle Ages."

One further volume of his collected work was published during Schapiro's lifetime, the 1994 release of Selected Papers IV: Theory and Philosophy of Art: Style, Artist, and Society. In 1995, Mondrian: On the Humanity of Abstract Painting was published. In the same year, Schapiro's authoritative bibliography was issued by George Braziller, Inc., which was compiled by Lillian Milgram Schapiro.

In 1994, the Brooklyn Museum named its West Wing the Morris A. and Meyer Schapiro Wing in honor of Schapiro and his brother, the financier and philanthropist Morris A. Schapiro. In the same year, a special symposium titled "The significance of Meyer Schapiro: a symposium in honor of his 90th birthday" was held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Speakers in the program included David Rosand, Linda Nochlin, Theodore Reff, John Plummer, Linda Seidel, Michael Taussig, and Henri Zerner. Artists, such as Louise Bourgeois, Allan Kaprow, and George Segal also spoke at the symposium.

Meyer Schapiro passed away in his Greenwich Village home on March 3, 1996. He was survived by his wife, Lillian Milgram Schapiro, a daughter, Miriam Schapiro Grosof, and a son, Ernest Schapiro.

After his death, Lillian Milgram Schapiro would continue her husband's efforts in editing and compiling material for publication with the help of Schapiro's long time assistant Robin Sands, her nephew Daniel Esterman, and publisher George Braziller. With her efforts, the following books were published posthumously: Words, Script, and Pictures: The Semiotics of Visual Language (1996); Impressionism: Reflections and Perceptions (1997); Worldview in Painting-Art and Society: Selected Papers, Vol. 5 (1999); The Unity of Picasso’s Art (2000); Meyer Schapiro : his painting, drawing, and sculpture (2000); Language of Forms: Lectures on Insular Manuscript Art (2005); and Romanesque architectural sculpture: The Charles Eliot Norton lectures (2006).

Lillian Milgram Schapiro passed away on August 6, 2006 and, two years later, the Getty Research Institute published Meyer Schapiro abroad : letters to Lillian and travel notebooks. The book focused on Meyer's correspondence with Lillian Milgram Schapiro as he traveled across Europe and the Near East from 1926 through 1927.

Schapiro's scholarly legacy in the fields of early Christian, Medieval, Romanesque, and Modern art historical studies, and his role in shaping the landscape of art historical scholarship both in the United States and internationally, continues to be of intellectual and philosophical interest to historians and artists alike.

From the guide to the Meyer Schapiro collection, 1919-2006., (Columbia University. Rare Book and Manuscript Library)


Loading Relationships


Ark ID:


  • Art--Study and teaching
  • Anti-communist movements
  • Subversive activities--20th century
  • World War, 1939-1945
  • Irish wit and humor
  • Art--History
  • Subversive activities--United States--20th century
  • World War, 1939-1945--Europe
  • Communism--20th century
  • Anti--ommunist movements--United States
  • Art historians
  • World War, 1939-1945--Soviet Union
  • World War, 1939-1945--United States
  • Painting, American
  • Communism--United States--20th century


  • Spies
  • Women authors
  • Authors, American--20th century
  • Actresses
  • College teachers
  • Journalists


  • United States (as recorded)
  • New York (State)--New York (as recorded)
  • Soviet Union (as recorded)
  • Europe (as recorded)
  • New York (State)--New York (as recorded)