This Day in Jewish History

1996: 'Plato in the Living Room' Is Born in a Lithuanian Village

Art historian Meyer Schapiro began Columbia at 16 and didn't cavil at correcting his teachers, in what peers would call 'Schapiric victories'.

Meyer Schapiro, a Lithuanian-born American art historian known for developing new art historical methodologies.
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After Meyer Schapiro died, in 1996, William S. Rubin, the influential former curator from the Museum of Modern Art, commented to The New York Times how “Few art historians have [had] the eye and mind of a Meyer Schapiro. And none of those shared his extraordinary humanity.”  The literary critic Irving Howe recounted how, for him, receiving Schapiro’s praise for something he had written, had been "the single highest reward to which I could aspire.” For painter R.B. Kitaj, a visit from Schapiro had been “like having Plato in the living room!"

In a long tribute to Schapiro, philosopher Marshall Berman, speaking for many whose orbits had intersected with the scholar's over the years, relished how “Meyer bathed us in art that made us see the joy and beauty of modern life.”

Who was this professor of art history who had such a profound effect on those who encountered him?

Lonely artist

Meir Schapiro was born on September 23, 1904, in the Lithuanian town of Siaulia, then part of the Russian empire. His father was Nathan Menachem Schapiro, a bookkeeper who had exchanged traditional religious belief for a belief in the values of the Enlightenment and of the socialist Bund. His mother was the former Fanny Adelman.

Two years after Meir’s birth, his father sailed for New York, and after he had found a job teaching at the Yitzchak Elchanan Yeshiva, on the Lower East Side, he brought over the rest of the family, which also included Meir’s older brother, Morris, who became a successful investment banker and a chess champion.

On his arrival at Ellis Island, Meir had his name Americanized to “Meyer.”

The family, which spoke Yiddish at home, lived in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville, where Meyer attended P.S. 84, before enrolling at Boys High School. In the evenings, he was the lone child in a painting class at the Hebrew Education Society, and, throughout his life, he continued making art of his own. He also sat in on lectures at the Young People’s Socialist League, and remained a democratic socialist throughout his life.

Art in strict context

In 1920, at age 16, Schapiro entered Columbia College. He studied art and philosophy, and developed a reputation for a razor-sharp mind, which, when he used it to demonstrate to teachers the error of their thinking, sometimes yielded what classmates would refer to as a “Schapiric victory.”

After earning his B.A. in 1924, Schapiro was turned down for graduate study at Princeton, but had his application turned down, because he was a Jew, he suspected. Instead, he returned to Columbia, where he not only attained both his master’s and doctorate, but also spent his entire teaching career.

One of the principles that guided that career was Schapiro’s belief that art, all of it, had to be considered within the social and cultural context in which it was made. For him, according to the website theartstory.org, “art could not be separated from the artist, and the artist was inextricably linked to his social setting and conditions.”

Schapiro’s PhD thesis was about the design and mosaics of the 12th-century French Moissac Abbey, France. But, parallel to his expertise on medieval art, Schapiro was also a champion of modern art. His lectures at the New School for Social Research, between the years 1936 and 1952, attracted many working New York artists.

Stories about the inspiration he offered many of them are legion. They include Willem de Kooning, who, in 1952, had put his part-abstract, part-figurative painting “Woman I” aside, out of frustration. After a visit from Schapiro, who urged him to return to the work, de Kooning completed the canvas, which became the first of an important series in his career.

Schapiro remained politically engaged as an intellectual, and in 1954 was one of the founding editors of the left-wing intellectual journal Dissent, together with Irving Howe and Michael Harrington. Yet, he remained close with Whittaker Chambers, a college friend, who became a bete noire of the American left after he left the communist party and testified against Alger Hiss in a celebrated trial.

In 1931, Schapiro married Lillian Milgram, a pediatrician, and the two were together until Meyer's death, on March 3, 1996.