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Cahn, Walter B.

    Image Credit: New Haven Register

    Full Name: Cahn, Walter B.

    Other Names:

    • Walter Cahn

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1933

    Place Born: Karlsruhe, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Germany

    Home Country/ies: Germany

    Subject Area(s): Medieval (European)


    Medievalist and professor of the History of Art, Yale University. Cahn’s father, Otto Cahn, owned a cigar factory in Lingenfeld, Germany; his mother was Frieda Cahn. His family’s synagogue in Karlsruhe was torched on Kristallnacht, 1938, and the family deported by the Nazi’s to a detention camp at Gurs, France in 1940. When the family was relocated to a second camp in Rivesaltes (Pyrénées-Orientales), Cahn and his brother were smuggled to Moissac, France, and settled under the éclaireurs Israelites de France. He learned French to better assimilate into the Nazi-occupied country. After liberation, he attended the local lycée, pursusing the cycle classique track. An American aunt and uncle brought him to the Brooklyn in 1948 were he learned English and attended public schools (P.S. 138 and the School of Industrial Art). Cahn entered the Pratt Institute intent on becoming an artist in 1952, receiving a B.F.A. in 1956. He served in the U. S. army as a Medical Corpsman between 1956 and 1958 in Washgington, D. C., returning to graduate work, this time in art history at Institute of Fine Arts, New York University in 1958. Cahn studied medieval architecture under Richard Krautheimer, but ultimately aligned himself with the medievalist Harry Bober. He wrote his Master’s thesis at Bober’s urging in 1960 on wooden statues of the Virgin and their relationship to stone renderings. The same year he married Annabelle Simon. Continuing for his Ph.D., at the Institute, he took courses under Otto Pächt and further courses with Meyer Shapiro at Columbia University. Cahn secured a Fulbright scholarship for Paris to research his thesis on the Souvingy Bible in Moulins. In Paris, Cahn made contacts with Jean Porcher, head of the department of manuscripts at the Bibliothèque nationale, Francis Salet of the Musée de Cluny, participating in trips led by Louis Grodecki and the Saturday lectures of André Grabar, known as the travaux pratiques at the École pratique des hautes études. Still researching his dissertation, Cahn taught as a senior lecturer in art history at Ravensbourne College of Art, Bromley, Kent, England, between 1963-1965. He returned to Yale University as an instructor, 1965-1967, remaining teaching at Yale his entire career. Cahn discovered a medieval manuscript, the so-called Murphy Haggadah, in a Yale library in 1965, which would later be important in repartion. In 1967 he completed his dissertation on Romanesque manuscript illumination under Bober and immediately was appointed assistant professor at Yale and chair of the department. He rose to associate professor the following year, 1968. The senior medievalist at Yale, Sumner McKnight Crosby, appointed Cahn the secretary of the ICMA (International Center of Medieval Art) and editor of the Center’s journal, Gesta. Cahn’s monograph on the wooden Romanesque doors at Auvergne, part of the College Art Association’s Monographs on Archaeology and Fine Arts, appeared in 1974. He rose to (full) professor of the history of art in 1976. Together with University of Chicago medievalist Linda Seidel he issued a scholarly inventory of Romanesque sculpture held in the United States in 1979. In 1985, Cahn’s discovered “Murphy Haggadah” was determined by James Marrow and a graduate student to have been owned by Baron James A. de Rothschild, and stolen during World War II. It was returned to the family by Yale. Cahn was Director of International Center of Medieval Art. His students included Elizabeth Sears and Jill Meredith. Cahn published medieval Judaism as a means to gauge cultural property (Sears). As an art historiographer, he wrote much on the Yale University medievalist Henri Focillon.

    Selected Bibliography

    {complete bibliography:] Sears, Elizabeth. ” A Bibliography of the Writings of Walter Cahn.” in Hourihane, Colum, ed. Romanesque Art and Thought in the Twelfth Century: Essays in Honor of Walter Cahn. University Park, Pa: Penn State Press, 2008, pp.24-30; [dissertation:] The Souvigny Bible: A Study in Romanesque Manuscript Illumination. New York University, 1967; Masterpieces: Chapters on the History of an Idea. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979; “Review of Meyer Schapiro, The Parma Idlefonsus.” Art Bulletin 49 (1967): 72-75; Romanesque Bible Illumination. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1982; and Seidel, Linda. Romanesque Sculpture in American Collections. 2 vols. New York : B. Franklin, 1979ff.; The Romanesque Wooden Doors of Auvergne. New York: New York University Press/College Art Association of America, 1974; and Vermeule, Cornelius, and Hadley, Rollin van N. Sculpture in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Boston Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 1977; “Schapiro and Focillon.” Gesta 41/42 (2002): 129-136; personal correspondence September 2010.


    Kleinbauer, W. Eugene. Research Guide to the History of Western Art. Sources of Information in the Humanities, no. 2. Chicago: American Library Association, 1982, pp. 12, 107; personal correspondence, July 2008 [birth place incorrect in Contemporary Authors]; Sears, Elizabeth. “The Art-Historical Work of Walter Cahn.” pp. 13-23, and Cahn, Walter. “Romanesque Art, Then and Now: A Personal Reminiscence.” pp. 31-39, in Hourihane, Colum, ed. Romanesque Art and Thought in the Twelfth Century: Essays in Honor of Walter Cahn. University Park, PA: Penn State Press, 2008, [full list of dissertations advised, p. 22, note 45].

    Contributors: Lee Sorensen


    Lee Sorensen. "Cahn, Walter B.." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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