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Barber, Leila Cook

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    Full Name: Barber, Leila Cook

    Gender: female

    Date Born: 1903

    Date Died: 1984

    Place Born: Chicago, Cook, IL, USA

    Home Country/ies: United States

    Subject Area(s): Italian (culture or style), painting (visual works), and Renaissance


    Vassar faculty member from 1931 to 1968 known for lectures on 14th and 15th century Italian painters; led Vassar College wartime defense program during WWII. Barber was raised in Chicago, IL. She graduated with a B.A. from Bryn Mawr in philosophy and psychology while she studying under famed medievalist and art historian Georgiana Goddard King. She received an M.A. in art history from Radcliffe in medieval sculpture and Renaissance painting, continuing graduate work at Radcliffe until 1931. In that year, Barber joined the Vassar Art Department as their third art historian. While working on her dissertation thesis in 1936, Barber was stranded during the bombing of Granada, Spain at the time of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. She was later evacuated to Cadiz along with 3 other women. Barber served on numerous arts organizations, including the Renaissance Society of America, College Art Association of America, and the Friends of Vassar Art Gallery and Barrett House. She taught a variety of courses at Vassar College, her best known being ‘Tuscan Painting of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Century.’ During years of World War II, Barber promoted a three year art history program at Vassar to encourage students to go into graduate work. Throughout the war, she also served as the chairman of the Key Center for Information and the Emergency Committee. In 1947, at the Arts Action meeting, she, along with many art historians and artists, signed a letter to President Truman and Secretary Marshall to protest the cancellation of the American painting tour in South America and Europe. Barber chaired the art department at Vassar betwee 1965 to 1968, retiring in 1968. She remained very involved in campus affairs until her death in 1984. She also supported local arts in Poughkeepsie, New York. She became the first member of the Bardavon Film Society and supported the League of Women Voters. Upon her retirement,Vassar College had an exhibit in their art gallery titled “The Italian Renaissance,” hoping to show the expanse of her studies. Using donations from educational institutions and museums, Vassar showcased drawings, prints, manuscripts, and books from the Renaissance. She died in 1984 and is buried in Edgartown, Massachusetts. In recent years, the Weitzel-Barber Art Travel Prize, an endowment that would send current Vassar students in art history and studio art to study around the world, was started in her honor.


    • Burgess, L. A. “Advancing american art” and its afterlife.”  Ph. D. thesis, 2010;
    • “The History of Art at Vassar College – 150 Years, Vassar’s Sesquicentennial – Vassar College.” Vassar College 150th Anniversary,;
    • “The Italian Renaissance : prints, drawings, miniatures, books : May 2 to June 9, 1968. Askew, Pamela, et al. “Libraries.” Barber, Lelia, [Unknown]-1984 — Memorial Minute | Vassar College Digital Library, Online Collection Published by Vassar College Libraries, Poughkeepsie, N.Y.,;
    • Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), August 12, 1936: 1;
    •  “Vassar Chronology.” 1968, May 2. Eleanor Dodge Barton ’38, Chairman of the Art Department at Sweet Briar College, Lectured on “Alessandro Algardi: A Case History of a Seventeenth Century Sculptor.” – A Documentary Chronicle of Vassar College,;
    • “Return from Spain.” New York Times  (1936, Aug 21);
    • Askew, Pamela, et al. “Libraries.” Barber, Lelia, [Unknown]-1984 — Memorial Minute | Vassar College Digital Library, 1984,;
    • “Leila Cook Barber.” Find A Grave, 17 July 2017,

    Contributors: Kerry Rork


    Kerry Rork. "Barber, Leila Cook." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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