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Herbert, Robert L.

    Image Credit: New York Times

    Full Name: Herbert, Robert L.

    Other Names:

    • Robert Louis Herbert

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1929

    Place Born: Worcester, Worcester, MA, USA

    Home Country/ies: United States


    Seurat and Impressionism specialist; Robert Lehman Professor of Art, Yale University, 1974-1990. Herbert’s parents were John Newman Herbert and Rosalia Harr (Herbert). His father operated a drawbridge. While at Wesleyan University, he developed an interest in the history of science. After graduation in 1951, he studied at the University of Paris until 1952. He returned to the U. S., marrying Eugenia W. Herbert in 1953 and pursued graduate work at Yale University. His M.A. was awarded in 1954. Herbert taught as an instructor at Yale University beginning in 1956, completing his degree the following year with a dissertation, written under George Heard Hamilton on Seurat. A friendship with the Columbia art historian Meyer Schapiro encouraged a socialist outlook in his personal politics and art history. He rose to assistant professor at Yale in 1960. Throughout his career, Herbert used the museum exhibition essay to publish his findings on art. His 1962 exhibition, Barbazon Revisited won the Frank Jewett Mather, Jr., award from the College Art Association. The exhibition and his focus on Millet renewed interest in this art movement. He became associate professor at Yale in 1963. His introductory essay to The Art Criticism of John Ruskin examined the critic John Ruskin in a social context. He chaired the department of art at Yale between 1965-1968. Herbert was appointed full professor of history of art in 1967 and a Guggenheim fellow for the 1971-1972 year. In the early 1970s, He was asked to contribute a text for the innovative Art in Context series, launched by Hugh Honour and John Fleming for Allen Lane publishers. His volume, addressing Jacques Louis David’s “Lictors Returning to Brutus the Bodies of his Sons,” 1789, was an outgrowth of a 1955 graduate school course under John W. McCoubrey. The book, David, Voltaire, ‘Brutus’ and the French Revolution: An Essay in Art and Politics is a concise paradigm of his scholarship, typical of the freedom allowed to art historians of the series. Herbert was named the Robert Lehman Professor in 1974. The 1978-1979 year he taught as Slade Professor, Oxford University. He was awarded a distinguished teaching honor by the College Art Association of America in 1982. Herbert’s summation of the social history of French Impressionism was issued in 1988 as Impressionism: Art, Leisure, and Parisian Society. He resigned from Yale in 1990 to join his wife, a professor at Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, MA, teaching as professor of art. The following year he helped organize the Seurat retrospective held at the Grand Palais (France) and Metropolitan Museum of Art. He retired from Mount Holyoke in 1997 as Andrew W. Mellon Professor Emeritus. A second Seurat major exhibition, “Seurat and the Making of the Grande Jatte,” was mounted in 2004. In 2008 he was awarded the College Art Association’s Distinguished Service Award. Herbert approached the well-examined period of Neoimpressionism through social history. His attention to subject matter–something that had been little done with Seurat–changed and deepen the understanding of that artist. Herbert disparaged purely chronological or historical approaches to art history, asserting that paintings are more than just historical documents to be read. Much of his writing was associated with museum exhibition catalogs. Herbert cited his early influences as art historians, in addition to McCoubrey, Jean Locquin, J. Renouvier, and Bob Rosenblum, as well as the historians F. A. Aulard (1849-1928) and David L. Dowd (1918-1968).

    Selected Bibliography

    [dissertation:] Seurat: Paintings, Drawings and Theory, 1875-1886. Yale University, 1957; [collected essays:] From Millet to Léger: Essays in Social Art History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002; edited, The Art Criticism of John Ruskin. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1964; David, Voltaire, ‘Brutus’ and the French Revolution: An Essay in Art and Politics. London: Allen Lane, 1972; Impressionism: Art, Leisure, and Parisian Society. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988. and Cachin, Françoise. Georges Seurat, 1859-1891. New York : Metropolitan Museum of Art/Abrams, 1991; and Harris, Neal and Druick, Douglas W. Seurat and the Making of La Grande Jatte. Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago/University of California Press, 2004.


    Kleinbauer, W. Eugene. Research Guide to the History of Western Art. Sources of Information in the Humanities, no. 2. Chicago: American Library Association, 1982, p. 128 mentioned; “Robert L. Herbert is 2008 Distinguished Scholar.” CAA News November 2007, pp. 4-5.


    "Herbert, Robert L.." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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