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Shapley, John

    Full Name: Shapley, John

    Gender: male

    Date Born: c. 1890

    Date Died: 1978

    Place Born: Jasper County, MO, USA

    Place Died: Washington, DC, USA

    Home Country/ies: United States

    Subject Area(s): Byzantine (culture or style), Early Christian, Early Medieval, and Medieval (European)

    Institution(s): University of Chicago


    Early Christian and Byzantine art scholar; chair of the Department of Art, University of Chicago and fourth president of the College Art Association, 1929-1938. Shapley was born on the family farm in Missouri and educated in a one-room school house. He graduated from the University of Missouri in 1912. He continued for an M.A. at Princeton University, granted in 1913. While still a student, Shapley and his teacher, John Pickard, helped found the College Art Association, the American professional body of art historians and professional artists. His Ph.D. from the University in Vienna, as conferred in 1914. The following year, he joined the faculty at Brown University. During World War I, his mathematics proficiency landed him a job teaching soldiers for the war effort. He married another University of Missouri alum and art historian, Fern Rusk Shapley in 1918. Beginning in 1923, Shapley served as the fourth President of the College Art Association. Shapley taught at Brown until 1924. He was the editor of the College Art Association’s Art Bulletin between 1921 and 1939, which he supported from his personal finances during the hard years of the Great Depression. In 1924, he joined the faculty of New York University as Samuel F. B. Morse professor. While an NYU professor, Shapley headed a project funded by the Carnegie Corporation donating books on art history to over 200 high schools and colleges in the United States and Great Britain. When the head of the art department at the University of Chicago, Walter Sargent (1868-1928), died in 1928, Shapley was appointed his successor. Shapley was responsible for bringing a greater variety and more scholarly faculty to the University, including José Pijon. His wife worked as an assistant to Bernard Berenson in Italy editing a second edition of his corpus of Italian drawings. Shapley used his income and connections at the University to publish Berenson’s three-volume set for a modest cost. The Shapley’s moved to Washington in 1938, he relinguishing his presidency at CAA; Fern Rusk Shapley became a curator at the National Gallery in 1947. From 1960 to 1963 he taught at the University of Baghdad in Iraq. He later taught at Catholic and George Washington universities. Though he published no books, he contributed essays to A Survey of Persian Art, the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and the Dictionary of Religion and Ethics. He succumbed to cardiac arrest in 1978. His brother was the noted Harvard astronomer Harlow Shapley (1885-1972).

    At Chicago, Shapley diverged from his predecessor Walter Sargent’s emphasis on integrating practice with historical and theoretical approaches to art, seeking to make Chicago’s art department’s focus on historical scholarship.(Boxer) Shapley’s work for the Carnegie project launched the widespread study of art history and archeology in the United States. Before the Carnegie initiative, almost no materials for the study of art history were available at the secondary school level. The so-called Carnegie “sets” consisted of more than 2,000 color art reproductions and about 200 books, most of them selected by Shapley.

    Selected Bibliography

    “The Analysis of Beauty,” The Bulletin of the College Art Association of America 1, (1918); “Another Sidamara Sarcophagus.” Art Bulletin 5, 1923; “A Lost Cartoon for Leonardo’s Madonna with St. Anne.” Art Bulletin 7, 1925; and Shapley, Fern Rusk. Comparisons in Art: a Companion to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. New York: Phaidon, 1957.


    “Prof. John Shapley Will Leave NYU: Art Authority Has Been Appointed Head of Department University of Chicago.” New York Times August 6, 1929, p. 34; [obituary:] Joyce, Maureen. “Art Historian John Shapley, 88, Dies.” Washington Post September 13, 1978, p. C8; Boxer, Carly.  “John Shapely.” University of Chicago Faculty History

    Contributors: Lee Sorensen


    Lee Sorensen. "Shapley, John." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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