Scholar of Henry Fuseli amd the Romantic movement; Institute of Fine Arts of New York University professor of art history. Schiff's father was a lawyer in Oldenburg, Germany and his mother was the actress Maria Martinsen (b. 1901). He attended the Humanistisches Gymnasium there, graduating in 1943, and immediately entered the man-strapped German military during World War II. Captured by the French, Schiff spent a year in a prisoner of war camp. He was released in 1945 and began studying law, psychology and graphology which led to an interest in art history and archeology. In 1952 he entered the Ph.D. program at the University in Cologne. He gained an appointment as a research fellow at the Schweizerisches Institut für Kunstwissenschaft (Swiss Institute for Art History) in Zürich in 1959. There he researched and published a series of works on the Swiss/English artist variously known as Henrich Füssli (or Henry Fuseli). He received his Ph.D. in art history from Cologne in 1962. The following year, his Johann Heinrich Füsslis Milton-Galerie appeared, a particularly important work on the artist. Schiff was recruited to New York University by Horst Woldemar Janson, joining the faculty of the college of New York University [Washington Square] in 1965. There Schiff taught courses on the history of English- and German 19th-century painting as well as Central European baroque painting and sculpture. He lived a bohemian lifestyle during this time, taking quarters at the Chelsea Hotel in Soho. His writing on Fuseli led to a series of important exhibitions on the artist, beginning with the one at the Kunsthaus, Zürich, in 1969. Schiff wrote the standard monograph on Fuseli in 1973, his Johann Heinrich Füssli, 1741-1825. At the death of Robert Goldwater, he joined the Institute of Fine Arts with the rank of professor of fine arts in 1974. During these years he moved to an apartment on West End Avenue in Manhattan. An open homosexual, he formed a long-term partnership with the artist Ching Ho Cheng (1947-1989). Another major Fuseli exhibition under Schiff was mounted at the Tate Gallery, 1975. He was named Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities at the Institute of Fine Arts. In 1983 Schiff organized first show devoted entirely to the work of Picasso's last years, then a period derided, for the Guggenheim Museum. Schiff's interest in the history of art history led him to edit the important volumes of art-historical tracts in 1988. His partner died in 1989 of chronic lung disease associated with the art materials with which he worked. Schiff was commissioned to organize a show on William Blake by director Seiro Mayekawa for the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo. However, Schiff contracted lymphoma before he could complete this project and the show opened without his presence in 1990. He died the same year at age 63. A projected English-language version of his Fuseli monograph was never published. His students included Eunice Lipton, Susan Grace Galassi, Sabine Rewald, Gertje Utley and Edward Sullivan, a chair of the department of fine arts at New York University. Schiff was "never an academic snob" (Rosenblum), his personal and professional interests encompassed popular culture as well as traditional art history. Nearly all scholars remarked on the amazing breadth of erudition, from classical languages and literature as well as art. A recollection of him at his residence at the Chelsea Hotel is contained in the autobiography by Patti Smith, Just Kids.
Johann Heinrich Füsslis Milton-Galerie. Zürich: Fretz & Wasmuth, 1963; Johann Heinrich Füssli, 1741-1825. 2 vols. Zürich: Verlag Berichthaus; München, Prestel 1973; Picasso: the Last Years, 1963-1973. New York: G. Braziller/Grey Art Gallery & Study Center, New York University, 1983; edited. German Essays on Art History. New York: Continuum, 1988.
"Ching Ho Cheng Dead, Mixed-Media Artist, 42." New York Times June 2, 1989, p. 15; Smith, Patti. Just Kids. New York: Harper Collins, 2010, p. 112; [obituaries:] Glueck, Grace. "Gert Schiff, 63, Professor of Art History and Critic." New York Times December 22, 1990, p. 33; Butlin Martin. "Gert Schiff (1926-90)." Burlington Magazine 133, no. 1061 (August 1991): 518; In Memoriam Gert Schiff, 1926-1990. New York: Institute of Fine Art, New York University, 1991 [essays by Robert Rosenblum and Colin Eisler].