Full Name: Offner, Richard
Date Born: 1889
Date Died: 1965
Place Born: Vienna, Vienna state, Austria
Place Died: Rome, Lazio, Italy
Home Country/ies: United States
Subject Area(s): Florentine, Italian (culture or style), Italian Renaissance-Baroque styles, painting (visual works), and Renaissance
Historian of Florentine renaissance painting and New York University professor. Offner’s family emigrated to the United States in 1891 when he was three years old. He grew up in New York city, studying at Harvard (1909-12) and as a Fellow at the American Academy in Rome (1912-14). His dissertation in art history (now lost) was written under Max Dvořák at the University of Vienna and granted in 1914. Offner submitted his dissertation the same day as fellow Dvořák student Frederick Antal, both to Dvořák’s assistant, Karl Maria Swoboda. Offner seems to have been less interested in the somewhat mystical Geistesgewissenschaft aspects of Dvořák, preferring the connoisseurship approach Dvořák had demonstrated in Dvořák’s van Eyck book of 1904. Offner’s connoisseurship was also drawn from Bernard Berenson. Offner began teaching in 1915 at the University of Chicago won several teaching awards and fellowships, including a fellowship at the American University, moving to Harvard in 1920 as Sachs Fellow. In 1923 joined the then year-old department at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University established by Fiske Kimball. In 1924, Offner denounced the overstated attributions of a group of Italian paintings for sale at the New York Gallery of Joseph Duveen, attributions certified by Bernard Berenson, who was then under contract with Duveen. The dispute put Berenson and the younger Offner at odds for many years. Offner held full professorship from 1927 until his death. His first volume of collected essays, Studies in Florentine Painting appeared in 1927, dedicated to Berenson. In 1928, Offner envisaged a corpus of painting ascribed to Florentine artists akin to the corpora that Adolph Goldschmidt had written for medieval ivories (1914), or that of cassoni by Paul Schubring in 1915, and Max J. Friedländer had done for Netherlandish painting (1923). Offner’s research on Florentine art culminated in the project, Critical and Historical Corpus of Florentine Painting, a description of Florentine renaissance artists, methods, and workshop production. Offner met a young Ph.D. student in Dresden, Klara Steinweg, whom he hired to be his assistant in Berlin. Offner’s research highlighted previously anonymous artists whose work had been attributed to their more famous contemporaries. He centralized the Corpus research team in 1935, which now included Werner Cohn in Florence, where Offner had been working. The group could use the facilities of the Kunsthistorisches Institut there. Offner married his research assistant, Philippa Gerry Whiting in 1937 and focused his energies for the rest of his life on the Corpus. Much of the Corpus’ bibliographic research stemmed from George Kaftal, unacknowledged, and Kaftal’s work on Italian iconography. In 1939, Offner wrote two of his most important articles in art history. The first was a seminal piece on Giotto written in response to a comprehensive Mostra Giottesca of 1937. Arguing against the the attribution of the Saint Francis Legend panels in Assisi, Offner’s approach was to compare the murals of the Arena chapel with the upper church in Assisi. Instead of settling these attribution disputes, “Giotto, Non-Giotto” caused a storm of controversy, particularly from Italian and German art historians. The second was his piece on the Barberini alterpiece, published as his contribution to the Memorial essays of A. Kingsley Porter. During the 1950s Offner was assisted informally with students by a private scholar who worked in his office at the University, Dorothy C. Shorr. Offner retired from NYU in 1954, continuing to teach in the emeritus capacity until 1961. He completed fourteen of the volumes of Corpus of Florentine Painting. While on vacation in Italy in 1965, he suffered a stroke and died. Steinweg continued to work alone at the request of the Institute of Fine Arts, publishing four additional volumes of the Corpus until her death in 1972 when the Istituto di Stori dell’Arte of the University of Florence took it over under the direction of Miklós Boskovits and Mina Gregori. Hayden Maginnis published Offner’s other attributions in a volume entitled A Legacy of Attributions (1981). Offner’s students included Millard Meiss, Robert Goldwater, Eve Borsook (M. A.), Gertrude Marianne Achenbach Coor, James H. Stubblebine, Gustina Scaglia, and Hellmut Wohl. Though Offner was in residence in the United States only one semester a year (he lived principally in Florence to be closer to the objects of his study), his reputation as a teacher was great. He employed a near fanatical connoisseurship to organize a body of work into a taxonomical form. A small essay on his method, “An Outline of a Theory of Method,” was authored by him and published in his Studies, 1927. His method was adopted from Berenson, who early on led him through galleries demonstrating his connoisseur approach to Offner, as well as through Giovanni Morelli and the writings Joseph Archer Crowe and G. B. Cavalcaselle. His relationship with the quixotic Berenson was uneven, even Offner’s deathbed visit to Berenson brought a sarcastic remark from the elder scholar (Ladis, p. 6-7). Like Morelli, Offner developed a photographic collection to make comparisons of the various “hands” of the artists, and insisting on black-and-white only. His visual conclusions were supported by documentary evidence, such as the work of Gaetano Milanesi. The Critical and Historical Corpus of Florentine Painting has been criticized for its overly cautious approach and its lack of conclusionary analysis; Offner was so focused on classifying details of his objects–unlike his models of Goldschmidt or Kurt Weitzmann–that Florentine Painting has been less useful by scholars than those works. Hayden Maginnis termed him an “archformalist.” Offner’s secretiveness (or academic caution) was infamous: he once declined to state even privately to Ulrich Middeldorf his views on the Badia Polyptych.
[complete bibliography:] Maginnis, Hayden. A Legacy of Attributions 1981; [dissertation (lost):] Florentinische Zeichnungen des überganges vom. 15. zum 16. Jahrhunderts als Illustrationen der formalen Entwicklung. Vienna, 1914; “Connoisseurship.” Art News 50 (March 1951): 24-5, 62-3; A Critical and Historical Corpus of Florentine Painting. New York: Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, 1930-1965; Studies in Florentine Painting: The Fourteenth Century. New York: Frederic Fairchild Sherman, 1927, [in particular for methodology, see:] “An Outline of a Theory of Method.” pp. 127-36; “Giotto, Non-Giotto.” Burlington Magazine 74 (1939): 258-69 and 75 (1939): 96-109 [particularly representative of methodology]; “Guido da Siena ans A.D. 1221” Gazatte des Beaux Arts 6th series, 37 (1950): 61-90, 155-64; “Four Panels, a Fresco and a Problem.” Burlington Magazine 54 (May 1929): 224-45; “Portrait of Perugino by Raphael.” Burlington Magazine 65 (December 1934): 244-57; “The Barberini Panels and their Painter.” in, Medieval Studies in Memory of A. Kingsley Porter. Koehler, Wilhelm, ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1939.
Panofsky, Erwin. “The History of Art.” In, The Cultural Migration: The European Scholar in America. Introduction by W. Rex Crawford. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1953, p. 88, mentioned; 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. 50, 117 mentioned; 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. 47 note 96; The Dictionary of Art; [biographical and methodological essays on Offner in] Offner, Richard. A Discerning Eye: Essays on Early Italian Painting. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998, specifically, Ladis, Andrew. “The Unmaking of a Connoisseur.” pp.3-19, Maginnis, Hayden B. J. “Richard Offner and the Ineffable: A Problem in Connoisseurship.” pp. 21-34, and Smyth, Craig Hugh. “Glimpses of Richard Offner.” pp. 35-46; [obituaries:] White, John. “Richard Offner.” Burlington Magazine 108 (May 1966): 262, 265; White, John. Art Journal 25 no. 1 (Fall 1965): 54; “Dr. Offner Dead: Art Historian, 76; Professor at N.Y.U.: Wrote on Florentine Painting.” New York Times August 28, 1965. p. 21