Robert L. Herbert, 91, Dies; Saw Impressionism With a Fresh Eye

Historians in the News
tags: obituaries, art history, Impressionism

Robert L. Herbert, a pioneering scholar of 19th-century art whose 1988 history of Impressionism, viewed through a social lens, delivered a robust transfusion to the study of that period, died on Dec. 17 in Northampton, Mass. He was 91.

His wife, Eugenia W. Herbert, said the cause was a stroke.

In a teaching career that spanned six decades, 34 years of which were spent in the Yale art history department, Professor Herbert was a prolific writer, editor and curator. His books include studies of paintings by David, Seurat, Monet and Renoir. At the same time, he advised generations of undergraduate and graduate students, many of whom, like Paul Hayes Tucker and Molly Nesbit, became outstanding scholars themselves.

Another one, Kenneth E. Silver, now a professor of art history at New York University and a 20th-century specialist, described Professor Herbert in an interview as “a moral figure for all of us, but not with a capital ‘M.’”

He “wasn’t oppressive,” Professor Silver added. “He didn’t insist you follow his mode.”

When Professor Herbert began delving into Impressionism, the field was threatened by a kind of anemic gentility, arid formalism and French literary theory. His method, by contrast, was to locate works of art within a matrix of social and biographic details, while being careful not to reduce them to the politics of their day, or of ours.

Traditional style analysis and novel practices like deconstruction, in his opinion, placed art “above the history of mundane events,” and nothing excited him more than uncovering mundane facts in order to illuminate, say, a painting like Seurat’s “Bathers at Asnières,” one that others regarded as exhaustively inspected and patly understood.

Like his Yale colleague Vincent Scully, Professor Herbert did not fit the mold of an Ivy League art historian. Neither man had a patrician pedigree. Professor Herbert’s family background was in rural and proletariat New England, a heritage he was proud of. (While teaching at Yale he lived on four acres of farmland outside New Haven amid old apple orchards and baby goats.)

Read entire article at New York Times

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