Obituary: Harvey Stahl (1941-2002)
Harvey Stahl, a leading historian of French Gothic art and culture and an inspiring teacher at Berkeley for more than two decades, died on June 22, 2002, of a myotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease). An outgoing and supportive colleague,former department chair and enthusiastic mentor to his students, Harvey will be greatly missed.
Born to immigrant parents in Dallas, Texas, Harvey Stahl received his B.A. from Tulane University in 1964 and his Ph.D.from the Institute of Fine Arts of New York University in 1974,where he completed his dissertation under the direction of one of the leading scholars of Byzantine painting and its influence in the West, Hugo Buchthal.
Drawn to the close study of original works of art, Harvey began his professional career as an Assistant Curator at the Department of Medieval Art of the Metropolitan Museum and The Cloisters, working also in the Metropolitan’s EducationalDepartment. In early adjunct appointments at Cooper Union and the Parson School of Design, Harvey taught students of art and design, refining his lifelong interest in the links between artistic practice and expression, or between aesthetic and historical forms. Harvey taught at Manhattanville College from1973, moving to Berkeley in 1980. In more than two decades at Berkeley he taught undergraduate and graduate courses treating the history of manuscript illumination, Romanesque, Gothic and Later Byzantine art, and covering works of painting,stained glass, metalwork, ivory and architecture. Harvey opened students’ eyes to the complexly layered meanings of works of medieval art. He encouraged them to study the ideals and values expressed in works of art and architecture and to appreciate the aesthetic resources artists employed to give shape and resonance to these concerns. Among the professional honors he received were a Fulbright Fellowship for study in Paris and grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Philosophical Society, and the American Council of Learned Societies.
Harvey’s research focused particularly on the French royal court in the thirteenth century, spanning such subjects as French royal iconography, pictorial narrative, Latin Crusader culture,and women’s visual experience in the High Middle Ages. He published important articles on Old Testament illustration during the reign of St. Louis, narrative structure in Gothic ivories, the human qualities of the Hildesheim doors, and an innovative image of the Heavenly Elect in a Cambrai Book of Hours. At the time of his death, Harvey had nearly finished his magnum opus on the most important work of French High Gothic manuscript illumination, the Psalter of St. Louis. As was apparent from lectures he delivered at national and international conferences in recent years, Harvey’s goal in this study was to redefine the ways scholars think about thirteenth-century book illumination. His students and colleagues will now see his book through the press, making use of notes he left for the completion of the study.
Harvey’s contributions to the field of art history went far beyond his research on the art of the Middle Ages. Invited in1985 to organize the annual meeting of the College Art Association of America in Los Angeles, Harvey fundamentally re-thought the purposes and shape of the annual conference,substituting sessions and panels focused on current and emerging problems (historical, disciplinary, and methodological) for the ad hoc pieces of research that had dominated the sessions in earlier annual meetings, and drawing leading scholars from sister disciplines, as well as European colleagues,to participate in the conference. The result was electrifying,doing more to energize the discipline of art history in America,and to nudge it toward much-needed critical reflection, than any other initiative before or after. All subsequent annual conferences of the College Art Association (as well as those of many other like organizations) have emulated and built upon the innovations introduced by Harvey at the Los Angeles conference, and many of the principles he espoused there underlie important changes that emerged in the editorial policies of some of our leading academic journals.
As I know well from personal experience, Harvey was a generous and insightful reader and editor, always willing to polish the prose of his friends and to offer comments that clarified problems that were not yet fully resolved and stretched one’s thinking. He took joy in his work and possessed an infectious and insidious sense of humor capable of brightening virtually any situation.
Harvey was a loving and devoted husband and father to three young sons. Human warmth pervaded his family and social life and all his activities as a thinker and scholar. He was taken from us at the height of his powers by a cruel and debilitating disease: he is mourned and warmly remembered by his beloved family, colleagues, students and friends.