Medievalist art historian, particularly the Romanesque, and theorist. Focillon's father was the engraver and occasional salon reviewer Victor-Louis Focillon (1849-1918). The younger Focillon grew up amidst the artists Edouard Vuillard and Auguste Rodin and the early documenter of Impressionism, Gustave Geffroy. His early schooling was in Paris at the Lycée Charlemagne and Lycée Henri IV. As a young man he helped Geffroy write first volume of Geffroy's series Les Musées d'Europe (The Museums of Europe) in 1900. Between 1901 and 1905 he studied philology at the école Normale Supérieure, graduating in 1906 agrégé ès lettres. His first teaching positions were at the Lycée of Bourges (1908-1910) and then the Lycée Chartres (1910-1913). Initially interested in the modern era, he received an appointment as professor of modern history at the University of Lyon concomitantly as director of the city's Musée des Beaux-Arts. During these years he published on subjects ranging from Buddhist art to Benvenuto Cellini. His dissertation was on Piranesi, submitted to the Université de Paris in 1918. Focillon developed an strong interest in Romania and its culture. In 1923 he founded the l'Institut français de Bucarest. The following year, in a dramatic switch of field emphasis, Focillon succeeded Émile Mâle in 1924 as the chair of medieval archaeology at the Sorbonne, a fact Focillon attributed to his having taught in cities with great medieval churches as much as aNew York Timeshing else. The following year, he was appointed Professeur of the University's new Institut d'Art et du Moyen Age. He remained interested in a variety of eras of art, though his teaching came to be focused on the medieval period. His years at the Sorbonne were among his most fruitful, writing major monographs on the medieval period and advising students who would become the next generation of outstanding medievalists. In 1931 his L'art des sculpteurs romans was published. This was followed in 1933 by essays in a work of various historians, La civilisation occidentale au moyen âge. In 1933, too, he began regular six-week teaching courses at Yale University, the alternate years taught by Marcel Aubert. The following year, 1934, he published his treatise on art, based heavily on his medieval art writings, La vie des formes. In 1938 his essays from La civilisation occidentale reappeared, revised and this time standing alone as, Art d'Occident, le moyen âge, roman et gothique (Art of the West in the Middle Ages). This same year he was elected to the chair of aesthetics and the history of art at the Collège de France and accepted a chair at Yale. Focillon was at Yale when World War II broke out in Europe in 1939 and witnessed, stateside, the occupation of France by the Nazis in 1940. That year he was named the first Senior Scholar at Harvard's Dumbarton Oaks in Washgington, D. C. After an long illness, he died mid-war at age 61 in the United States, his essays, Moyen âge, survivances et reveils, published the same year. Among his posthumous publications were his speeches on behalf of France's freedom, Témoignage pour la France. His posthumous reputation rose in the 1963 with the translation of his book, Art of the West in the Middle Ages, an initiative fostered by the medievalist Jean Bony and Peter Kidson.
Focillon's students were among the most illustrious art historians of the following generation. At the Sorbonne they included, in addition to Bony, André Chastel, Francoise Henry, Philippe Verdier, Louis Grodecki, Charles Sterling, and Jurgis Baltrušaitis II, who married Focillon's daughter, Hélène. His Yale students included Sumner McKnight Crosby, Charles Seymour, Jr., was als Elizabeath Mendell and George Kubler. The strength of his lectures alone convinced the undergraduate James S. Ackerman to become an architectural historian; Robert Branner an ardent follower of his work. Focillon's rhetorical delivery (he refused to speak any language othere than French) was legendary: eloquent and nearly literary in its tone. Focillon was the first important French art historian to incorporate Germanic art-historical method into the école des Chartes tradition of scholarship (Kidson). A formalist, his methodology employed a "cyclical development of forms" theory in the manner of Heinrich Wölfflin (Bazin) and Adolf von Hildebrand, an approach that has not, as a rule, stood the test of time. He attempted to establish formalist principles of interpretation based on what he called "pure visuality" (Life of Forms). His formalism is the antithesis of the analytic objectivity that dominates modern art historical writing. Distinct from Mâle, Focillon emphasized form over iconography or symbolism. Meyer Schapiro strenuously criticized Focillon for this methodology in Schapiro's 1931 Art Bulletin article on Moissac. Focillon had famously defined the Romanesque as a style, so narrowly that he once warned that much of the Romanesque period art could not be called Romanesque. He saw architecture as the primary artistic impulse of the middle ages, a theme characteristic among French art historians of his time (cf. Mâle, whom he succeeded). The year 1000 was, according to him, the beginning of this period of building which gave evidence to Focillon's theory, authoring a book with the same subject and title. Throughout his writing, he argued against the Hegelian dialectic in favor of what he called a layered art historical tradition. His particular interest in the Romanesque reflects this attitude as the beginning point of his "strata" of art history. Ironically, his infatuation with "spirit" as a motivating force in art is much akin to Hegel's. His distaste of deterministic theories of art differs from Aloïs Riegl. The influence of Henri Bergson (1859-1941), especially in Focillon's La vie des formes, has been noted by many, in print by Walter B. Cahn and Willibald Sauerländer (see André Chastel).