John Shearman, distinguished scholar of Italian Renaissance art, died Aug. 11 of a sudden heart attack while vacationing in the Canadian Rockies. He was 72.
Shearman was the Charles Adams University Professor Emeritus, having joined the faculty in 1987 as professor of fine arts. His expertise embraced many of the great figures of Renaissance painting, including Nicolas Poussin, Andrea del Sarto, Fra Bartolomeo, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael.
Known for his profound historical knowledge and for his understanding of the technical aspects of painting, Shearman often played an important role in identifying and conserving works of art. In 1966, he surveyed the flood damage to art and architecture in Florence, Italy, and helped arrange restoration efforts; in the 1980s, he served on the Pontifical Advisory Commission for the Restoration of the Sistine Chapel; and in 2001, he identified an Andrea del Sarto altarpiece that had been lost for 350 years.
President Lawrence H. Summers said: “The death of John Shearman is a great loss for Harvard and for scholarship worldwide. He was a scholar of immense erudition and penetrating intellect who has made enormous contributions to our understanding of Renaissance art.”
William Kirby, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), called Shearman “a Renaissance man and a Harvard man. He was a towering figure in his field, and a greatly admired colleague.”
Jeremy Knowles, the Amory Houghton Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry and former FAS dean, said:
“We have lost a master of the art and architecture of the Italian Renaissance, and a warm friend. Whether he was re-discovering a missing del Sarto Madonna, opening our eyes afresh to the Sistine Chapel, or drawing hundreds of students to his lectures on Michelangelo, John Shearman was a fiercely principled scholar and an uplifting teacher. Only just weeks ago, he completed his ‘Raphael in Early Modern Sources,’ a work that now sadly ends a luminous – and illuminating – career.”
“The entire field of Renaissance art historical studies, and the intellectual world of Harvard, have lost a major and irreplaceable figure,” said Harvard President Emeritus Neil L. Rudenstine, who knew Shearman since 1979 when both were colleagues at Princeton University.
“His work constantly expanded and deepened our understanding of the entire field, but however broad his view of a subject might be, John cared finally about every individual work of art – its original placement in a church or other setting; its condition and conservation history; the precise delineation of its stylistic character and distinctiveness; and the history of its reception. He was also a compelling lecturer and a teacher, mentor, and friend to a host of students and colleagues throughout his career.”
Colleague James Ackerman, the Arthur Kingsley Professor of Fine Arts Emeritus, said that Shearman “was clearly the leading scholar of Italian Renaissance painting and produced an extraordinary number of publications. He added greatly to the documentary knowledge of his subject and managed to clarify a great many puzzling problems.”
Ackerman added that Shearman’s lecture classes, though rigorous, were extremely popular, filling the largest available classrooms. “He gave them the straight stuff, with the latest research, presented in a systematic and clear way,” Ackerman said.
Born in Aldershot, U.K., in 1931, Shearman earned his B.A. in 1955 from the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London. He received his Ph.D. from the same institution in 1957. Shearman taught and conducted research at the Courtauld Institute from 1957 to 1979. From 1974 to 1978, he served as its deputy director.
In 1979, Shearman accepted a position at Princeton University as professor of art history, and from 1979 to 1985, he served as chair of the department of art and archaeology.
He joined the Harvard faculty in 1987 as professor of fine arts and in 1989 received the William Dorr Boardman Professorship. In 1994, he became the Charles Adams University Professor and retired in 2002. He was chair of the Fine Arts Department from 1990 to 1993.
Shearman’s books include: “The Drawings of Nicolas Poussin, IV: Landscape Drawings” (1963, in collaboration with Anthony Blunt); “Andrea del Sarto” (1965, 2 vols.); “Mannerism” (1967); “Pontormo’s Altarpiece in Santa Felicita” (1971); “Raphael’s Cartoons in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen and the Tapestries for the Sistine Chapel” (1972); “The Vatican Stanze: Functions and Decoration” (1972); “The Drawings of Fra Bartolomeo, Andrea del Sarto and Their Circle” (1978); “The Early Italian Paintings in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen” (1983); “Only Connect … Art and the Spectator in the Italian Renaissance” (1992); “Raphael in Early Modern Sources” (forthcoming).
Shearman was a fellow of the British Academy and received the Academy’s Serena Medal for Italian Studies in 1979. He was also a fellow of the Accademia del Disegno (Florence), the Accademia di San Luca (Rome), the Accademia Raffaello (Urbino), and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1983, he was awarded the Bronze Medal of the Collège de France.
He leaves his wife, Kathryn Brush, professor of art history at the University of Western Ontario; a sister, Jeane Duffey of Vancouver, British Columbia; four children by his first wife, Jane (Smith) Shearman (died 1982): Juliet, Niccola, Sarah, and Michael; and five grandchildren.
Memorial services will be held this fall in Cambridge and in London.