Campus & Community

Scholar, curator, connoisseur Welch dies at 80

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Stuart Cary Welch Jr., curator emeritus of Islamic and later Indian art at the Harvard Art Museum and former special consultant in charge, Department of Islamic Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, died Aug. 13 while traveling in Hokkaido, Japan. He was 80 and a resident of New Hampshire.

Welch, a legendary scholar, collector, and connoisseur, studied and taught at Harvard, where he was instrumental in transforming the Department of Islamic Art, establishing a curriculum of study of the arts of the Middle East and South Asia, and developing one of the finest collections of Islamic and later Indian art in this country. His lifelong association with Harvard culminated in his role over the past two decades as one of the most generous donors to the Harvard Art Museum.

“The contributions made by Stuart Cary Welch to Harvard are immeasurable and reflect a life dedicated to the appreciation, study, and sharing of the works of art that he loved,” said Thomas W. Lentz, Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director of the Harvard Art Museum, who studied with Welch at Harvard. “Because of his endless curiosity and ongoing generosity, an exceptional resource for the teaching, research, and study of the artistic traditions of the Middle East and India exists for future generations. We mourn the loss of a brilliant scholar, teacher, curator, mentor, and friend.”

“Cary was enormously energetic and prolific. He was simply a towering figure in the fields of Islamic and Indian art,” said Mary A. McWilliams, Norma Jean Calderwood Curator of Islamic and Later Indian Art at the Harvard Art Museum. “He had an extraordinary capacity to engage with a work of art and an exceptional ability to communicate his experience and insights to others. We are eternally grateful for his long service and stewardship of the Department of Islamic and Later Indian Art here at Harvard, as well as his myriad contributions to the study of those traditions.”

Welch developed an appreciation of art early in his childhood. Aside from being a collector of drawings at a very young age, Welch himself was an accomplished draftsman, a skill that carried through to his enrollment at Harvard and beyond. He was a graduate of the St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H., in 1946. That same year he began his undergraduate studies in fine arts at Harvard, where he continued his graduate work in classical art from 1952 to 1954. During that time, Welch intensified his study and collecting of Islamic and Indian art. He also published some of his more entertaining and lighthearted drawings in Harvard’s literary and humor magazines, including his series of Popular Professions Illustrated that appeared in the Harvard Lampoon and the Harvard Advocate.

While Welch concentrated in the study of fine arts at Harvard, at the time there were no classes or formal instruction available on the subject of Islamic or Indian art. Welch took the initiative to devise his own course of study by traveling extensively throughout the Middle East and South Asia to absorb regional traditions and culture. At the same time, Eric Schroeder, then honorary keeper of Islamic Art at the Fogg Museum, became his mentor at Harvard.

In 1956, Schroeder invited Welch to become honorary assistant keeper of Islamic Art at the Fogg, and thus began an era that saw Welch use his infinite enthusiasm to transform the fledgling Department of Islamic Art. He spearheaded the effort to establish one of the first American university curriculums in the study of the arts of the Islamic world. In 1960, he taught the first class at Harvard in Near Eastern Art. An instructor for 25 years at Harvard, Welch arranged for works of art to be made available for study by students and scholars. Over four decades at Harvard, Welch served as honorary keeper, curator (retiring in 1995), and finally curator emeritus, and during his tenure he vastly enriched Harvard’s holdings of Islamic and Indian art.

Concurrent with his work at Harvard, Welch served as special consultant in charge, Department of Islamic Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1979 to 1987. He was instrumental in making many important acquisitions that greatly enhanced the Metropolitan Museum’s collection, and in 1985, he organized the groundbreaking exhibition “India: Art and Culture, 1300–1900.”

Welch’s scholarship, particularly in the fields of Persian and Indian painting and drawing, served as the foundation for many important exhibitions and accompanying publications, including “The Art of Mughal India, Paintings and Precious Objects” (Asia Society, 1964), the first important American exhibition devoted to Mughal art; “Wonders of the Age” (British Museum, National Gallery of Art, Harvard Art Museum, 1979–80); “Gods, Kings, and Tigers: The Art of Kotah” (Asia Society, Harvard Art Museum, Rietberg Museum, 1997–98); and “From Mind, Heart, and Hand: Persian, Turkish, and Indian Drawings from the Stuart Cary Welch Collection” (The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, Harvard Art Museum, 2004–05), an exhibition of drawings from Welch’s landmark gift to Harvard in 1999 of more than 300 works.

Over the 40 years that Welch spent at Harvard, he produced countless exhibitions, many of which may have been small in size, but which always tended toward the visual and poetic. His last exhibition is the first in a series titled “Perspectives” that is part of the long-term exhibition “Re-View” at the Harvard Art Museum/Arthur M. Sackler Museum. The small installation, “Tree of Life: Five Indian Variations on a Theme,” includes just five works of art but is characteristic of Welch’s vision and approach. It opened in April 2008 just a few days after Welch’s 80th birthday.

Considered his greatest scholarly achievement was the immense, two-volume study of “The Houghton Shahnameh,” co-authored with Martin B. Dickson of Princeton University, which focused on the great early Safavid dynasty copy of the Persian national epic executed for the Safavid ruler and patron of the arts Shah Tahmasp (r. 1524–1576). Welch’s insights fundamentally changed the way scholars thought about the development of early Safavid painting, demonstrating that it was, in fact, a brilliant synthesis of the earlier Timurid and Turkman styles of painting.

Welch’s numerous exhibitions, publications, public lectures, and years of teaching propelled the study and appreciation of Islamic and Indian art to new heights, educating and enlightening generations of students, scholars, and museum visitors.

Stuart Cary Welch Jr. is survived by his wife of 54 years, Edith Welch, four children, and four grandchildren.

In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made to the Harvard Art Museum, Attn: Department of Institutional Advancement, 32 Quincy St., Cambridge, MA 02138; or St. Paul’s School, 325 Pleasant St., Concord, NH 03301.

A memorial service is being planned at Harvard. Details about the location and date are not yet confirmed.