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Ackerman, James S.

    Image Credit: The Architect's Newspaper

    Full Name: Ackerman, James Sloss

    Other Names:

    • James Ackerman

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 08 November 1919

    Date Died: 31 December 2016

    Place Born: San Francisco, San Francisco, CA, USA

    Home Country/ies: United States

    Subject Area(s): architecture (object genre) and sculpture (visual works)

    Institution(s): Harvard University


    Architectural historian and professor of Fine Arts, Harvard University, 1960-1990. Ackerman’s father, Lloyd Stuart Ackerman (1882-1968), was a prosperous San Francisco attorney and his mother, Louise Sloss (Ackerman) (1888-1983), was later a librarian at the San Francisco Museum of Art (today the SF Museum of Modern Art). Art as a child, he was exposed to art when his family toured European museums in 1932. At age 15, he read Vision and Design by Roger Fry, which opened him to the formal interpretation of art. Ackerman attended Yale University, where the courses of Henri Focillon “mesmerized” him. He received his A. B. in 1941. During World War II he served in the U.S. Army Signal Intelligence Service in Italy from 1942 until 1945, the so-called “Monuments Division.” There he was assigned to retrieve an archive, hidden for safety, in the Renaissance Carthusian monastery of Certosa of Pavia near Milan. He became fascinated with Italy and renaissance art. When his brother, Lloyd Stuart Ackerman, Jr. was killed in the War, Ackerman’s parents established a library at the SF Museum in his memory in 1945. After discharge from the service, Ackerman entered New York University earning his M.A. in 1947 with a thesis written under Richard Krautheimer. He married Mildred Rosenbaum (d. 1986), a dancer, the same year, and joined Yale University as an instructor in 1948. Ackerman was a research fellow at the American Academy in Rome between 1949 and 1952 and a Fulbright fellow for the 1950-1951 year. His Ph.D. from NYU was awarded in 1952, writing a dissertation also supervised Krautheimer on the Cortile del Belvedere, the courtyard between the Vatican Villa and the palace.

    He joined the University of California, Berkeley, as an assistant professor in 1952. He rose to associate professor in 1956 and ultimately professor of architecture and art in 1959. During the same years he acted as editor-in-chief of the Art Bulletin (1956-1960). After a visiting lectureship at Harvard University during the 1958-1959, year, he was appointed professor of fine arts at Harvard University in 1960. Ackermann won the Hitchcock Medal from the College Art Association in 1961 for his book, The Architecture of Michelangelo, a topic urged on him by Anthony Blunt and Rudolf Wittkower. During this time he was a member of the board of directors of the Renaissance Society of America. Together with Rhys Carpenter, Ackerman wrote Art and Archaeology, 1962, a handbook for practitioners of the discipline of art history. He was named chairman of department of Fine Arts at Harvard in 1963. He was a visiting fellow at the Council of the Humanities, Princeton University for the 1960-1961 year. Ackerman turned his attention to the Venetian architect Andrea Palladio, writing two books, Palladio and Palladio’s Villas in 1966 and 1967, respectively. He taught as Slade Professor of Fine Art, Cambridge University, for the 1969-1970 year.

    In 1976 he produced a film with Kathleen Weil-Garris, Looking for Renaissance Rome. In 1983 Ackerman was named A. Kingsley Porter Professor of Fine Arts. He delivered the Mellon lectures at the National Gallery of Art, Washgington, D. C., in 1985, published in 1990 as The Villa: Form and Ideology of Country Houses. In 1986 his wife died and he remarried Jill Rose Slosburg (b. 1948), a sculptor/jeweler, in 1987. In 1990 he was named professor emeritus from Harvard. His students include Daniel Abramson, John Archer, David Friedman, Alice Friedman, Thomas Da Costa Kaufmann, Elisabeth Blair MacDougall, Loren Partridge, Stephen Tobriner, Franklin Toker and Rochelle Ziskin.

    Ackerman’s dissertation signaled his methodological approach as an architectural historian: the determining of design responsibility of an architectural monument. His most important book the 1961 Architecture of Michelangelo reframed notions of the genesis of Michelangelo’s buildings. Building on the work of Karl Frey, Henry Thode and the more recent research of Charles de Tolnay, Ackerman brought out Michelangelo as a significant and thoughtful architect (Lein). His book on Palladio remains his most well-known work. A documentary historian, (inspired in part, he said by a 1955 article by Georgina Masson), he explained architecture as solved problems rather than through stylistic analysis. His book Art and Archaeology is still a useful primer for the discipline of art history, defining the methodologies of connoisseurship, criticism, iconography, etc.

    Selected Bibliography

    • [dissertation:] The Cortile del Belvedere. New York University, 1952, published as, The Cortile del Belvedere, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana. Vatican City: Biblioteca aspostolica vaticana, 1954;
    • [collected essays and selected bibliography:] Distance Points: Essays in Theory and Renaissance Art and Architecture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991;
    • Palladio. Baltimore and Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966;
    • Palladio’s Villas. Locust Valley, NY: J. J. Augustin/Institute of Fine Arts, 1967;
    • “Science and Visual Art.” in Seventeenth Century Science and Arts. Edited by Hedley Rhys. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1961;
    • The Architecture of Michelangelo. 2 vols. London: 1961;
    • and Carpenter, Rhys. Art and Archaeology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1963;
    • Palladio. Baltimore, MD: Penguin, 1966;
    • Palladio’s Villas. Locust Valley, NY: Institute of Fine Arts/J. J. Augustin, 1967;
    • edited, The Garland Library of the History of Art, (one hundred fifty-two articles in fourteen volumes), Garland (New York, NY), 1976ff.;
    • and Weil-Garris, Kathleen. Looking for Renaissance Rome
      . New York: Fogg Fine Arts Films, 1976;
    • The Villa: Form and Ideology of Country Houses. A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts 1985. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990;
    • and Slosburg-Ackerman, Jill. Origins, Imitation, and Conventions: Representation in the Visual Arts. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001.


    • personal correspondence, 2006-2007;
    • [transcript] James Ackerman. Interviews with Art Historians, 1991-2002. Getty Research Institute, Malibu, CA, 1994;
    • Welsh, Marjorie. “To the Villa Born.” Art News 87 (February 1988): 126-129;
    • Bazin, Germain. Histoire de l’histoire de l’art: de Vasari à nos jours. Paris: Albin Michel, 1986, p. 435;
    • Kleinbauer, W. Eugene. Research Guide to the History of Western Art. Chicago: American Library Association, 1982, pp. 121-122, 158;
    • Kleinbauer, W. Eugene. Modern Perspectives in Western Art History: An Anthology of 20th-Century Writings on the Visual Arts. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971, p. 51 mentioned, 70 cited, 88, 102, 35n.74;
    • Howard, Christopher. “Centennial Celebration: An Interview with James Sloss Ackerman.” CAA News (July 2010): 12-15;
    • Lein, Edgar. “James S. Ackerman: The Architecture of Michelangelo.” in Naredi-Rainer, Paul von. Hauptwerke der Kunstgeschichtsschreibung. Stuttgart: Alfred Kröner, 2010, pp.1-4.


    Contributors: Emily Crockett and Lee Sorensen


    Emily Crockett and Lee Sorensen. "Ackerman, James S.." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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