Department History

When the University of Chicago opened its doors in 1890, there was no Department of Art History among its areas of study. Although President Harper noted the value in adding an arts curriculum, the impetus for its creation developed slowly. Yet even without a strong institutional foundation, Frank Tarbell started offering courses on classical art within a year of his arrival as a professor of Greek in 1892.

History of the Department

Tarbell was soon joined by James Breasted, the first professor of Egyptology in the United States and a vocal advocate for the study of art from the Near East. Initially coupled together as the Department of Archaeology, the duo provided an early avenue through which students could study the art of antiquity. Reorganized as the Department of the History of Art in 1903, their chronologically limited focus was finally broadened in 1908 with the hiring of George B. Zug whose scope of teaching ranged from medieval to American art. 

Despite the progress made in establishing an art history curriculum at the University, the premature departure of Zug to Dartmouth in 1912 left things much where they had begun twenty years before. The absence he left behind was compounded by the retirement of Tarbell in 1918, leaving Breasted the sole official member of the Department of the History of Art until 1922. Though initially hesitant to fund an arts program that could hardly rival the School of the Art Institute (SAIC) downtown, the University’s Board of Trustees finally in 1923 approved the creation of a new Department of Art, merging the former Department of the History of Art with the arts education program of the School of Education. With the ambition to bring under one roof the historical study, aesthetic appreciation, and practical instruction of art, they selected Walter Sargent, a professor of arts education at the University’s School of Education, to serve as its first chair. Rejecting attributes of cultural elitism or pastime that clung to art in the public perception, Sargent understood art democratically as a unique mode of expression and form of experience whose training was essential to everybody’s intellectual development and general education. Though the department remained small under his tenure, with the addition of only two faculty members, Sargent helped make the arts an important element of the University’s curriculum for the first time.

Haydon giving a lecture, Special Collections Research Center

With Sargent’s death in 1927 came the hiring of John Shapley, an Early Christian and Byzantine art historian trained at the University of Vienna, who carried ambitions of turning the department into a major center for research. As the fourth president of the College Art Association (CAA) for almost two decades, from 1921–1939, Shapley was a crucial figure not only in the department’s history, but for the formation of the discipline in the United States as such. During Shapley’s time in the 1930s, the department made two important additions to its faculty: Ulrich Middeldorf, a specialist in Renaissance art, and Ludwig Bachhofer, a student of Heinrich Wölfflin and refugee from National Socialist Germany, who came to pioneer the study of East Asian art, inaugurating the department’s traditional strength in that field and paving the way for its present commitment to global art history more broadly. 

Middeldorf, upholding after Shapley’s departure in 1939 the latter’s emphasis on scholarly research alongside art practice, led the department through the years of WWII until 1953. He would see a number of his students, including Seymour Slive (an historian of Dutch art and director of Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum), Bates Lowry (director of the Museum of Modern Art), and Peter Selz (German art historian and curator at the Museum of Modern Art), become important scholars and curators in their own right. Under Middeldorf, who had been personally engaged in aiding refugee art historians, the department continued to bolster its academic significance at the University through the appointment of two prominent emigré scholars, Edgar Wind and Otto von Simson, in 1941 and 1947 respectively. 

Midway Studios, Special Collections Research Center

Over the next two decades, professor of art history Joshua Taylor, himself a University of Chicago alumnus, contributed greatly to the department’s rise in status and reputation in and outside the University. An acclaimed teacher, Taylor’s courses in the history of art were an acknowledged highlight of the Humanities core program of the College. His 1957 textbook Learning to Look became an academic bestseller, which still serves as many students’ primary introduction to formal analysis. 

By the 1970s, the model of a department of art covering the study of art as well as the instruction of artists, a model dating back to Walter Sargent’s reform initiative in the mid-1920s, had lost its justification in the eyes of the faculty. In 1975 arts education was structurally separated from the history of art program. The newly formed Committee on Art and Design henceforth ran the Midway Studios. In 1996 the department was renamed the Department of Art History. The studio program remained a semi-autonomous unit of the Department of Art History until 2006, when it acquired full departmental status as the Department of Visual Arts (DoVA).

A notable addition to the faculty during these years was Harold Rosenberg, the famous New York art critic and champion of Action Painting, who served on the University of Chicago’s Committee of Social Thought as a professor of art from 1966 until his death in 1978. 

CWAC Courtyard, The Chicago Maroon

In 1971, the department moved from its former location in Goodspeed Hall into the newly constructed Cochrane-Woods Art Center just north of Regenstein Library. It was part of a larger building project that included the David and Alfred Smart Gallery, the University’s first art museum, which has since become an invaluable partner in the education of students and future curators and instructors.

Over the past decades, the department has emerged as a guiding force in critical transformations of art historical scholarship, integrating theoretical methods and models drawn from psychoanalysis, semiotics, and sexuality and gender studies—perhaps best exemplified by Michael Camille, whose work’s scholarly breadth, theoretical ambition, and ethical commitment continue to serve as a token and model of this department’s intellectual versatility and progressivity. Initially propelled by the postmodernist movement, the department has since committed itself especially to building its strengths in non-Western art history. Today’s department has created a space for dialogue and discussion spanning traditionally disparate fields, ranging from classical Greek to modern art, non-Western areas such as African, Latin American, and Asian art history, and contemporary art in a global perspective. 

–Martin Schwarz (PhD Candidate in Art History) and Julie Mebane (PhD Candidate in Classics)