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Lee, Rensselaer W.

    Full Name: Lee, Rensselaer W.

    Other Names:

    • Rensselaer Wright Lee

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1898

    Date Died: 1984

    Place Born: Philadelphia, Philadelphia, PA, USA

    Place Died: Princeton, Mercer, NJ, USA

    Home Country/ies: United States

    Subject Area(s): art theory and Baroque


    Marquand Professor of art history at Princeton, 1954-1966; specialist in baroque and art theory. Lee graduated with honors from Princeton in 1920, and in 1926 received a doctorate in English. He taught English at Princeton, but more and more knew his interest lay in art history. He began graduate work in art and archeology, culminating in a Carnegie Fellowship in Fine Arts in 1929. He used the Fellowship for European travel to research art for the next two years. He married Stella Wentworth Garrett. Upon his return he became professor of art history at Northwestern University from 1931 to 1940. In that year, too, Lee published his seminal article on baroque art theory, “Ut Pictura Poesis: The Humanistic Theory of Painting” in the Art Bulletin. Lee moved to Smith College in the same capacity in 1941. During World War II, Lee was editor-in-chief of the College Art Association’s Art Bulletin between 1942 and 1944 and then as a member of its editorial board beginning in 1945. Following the war, he served on the American committee to conserve and restore European monuments and art damaged in the War. In 1948 he accepted a call from Columbia University which he held until 1954, when he taught one year at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. In 1956 he returned to Princeton to chair the Department of Art and Archeology, succeeding E. Baldwin Smith. In 1958 he was part of a team that documented Byzantine art treasures at the sixth-century monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai. As chairman, Lee persuaded Institute for Advanced Study scholar Erwin Panofsky to teach courses regularly. Lee remained the chairman until 1964 when he stepped down (succeeded by David Robbins Coffin) in order to devote full time to teaching and research. He retired in 1966. He served as President of the American Academy in Rome from 1968-1971. In 1977, his second book of art theory, this one pertaining to the poet Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533), Names on Trees: Ariosto into Art appeared from Princeton University Press. Following surgery for an aneurism, he died in a Princeton hospital. His papers are housed at Princeton University Library Special Collections. Lee’s writing on art theory became a staple for art students before there was large body of material in English. Together with Anthony Blunt, and Panofsky, Lee emphasized how philosophical and esthetic theory shaped the production of art in the renaissance and baroque eras.

    Selected Bibliography

    “Ut Pictura Poesis: The Humanistic Theory of Painting.” Art Bulletin 22 (1940): 197-269 [also published as monograph (same title)] New York: Norton, 1967; Names on Trees: Ariosto into Art. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977.


    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. 4; 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. 9 [obituaries:] Cook, Joan. “R. W. Lee, Art Historian, Dies.” New York Times December 6, 1984, p. D31


    "Lee, Rensselaer W.." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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