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Spencer, John R.

    Full Name: Spencer, John R.

    Other Names:

    • John Spencer

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1923

    Date Died: 1994

    Place Born: Moline, Rock Island, IL, USA

    Place Died: Durham, NC, USA

    Home Country/ies: United States

    Subject Area(s): Italian (culture or style)


    Scholar of the Italian quattrocento; Professor of art history, Duke University 1978-1986. As an eighteen-year-old in 1941, Spencer joined the U.S. Army Air Corps, flying as a bombardier in B-24s during World War II over Vincenza, Italy. Already interested in art, he later quipped that he was likely the only one in his unit who knew what was down there. He helped spare Palladio buildings from U. S. bombs (Newton). After the war, Spencer attended Grinell College, receiving his B. A. in 1947 and a second B.A. from the Universite Laval, Quebec, in 1948. Intent on studying languages, he entered Yale University for his graduate work, receiving an M.A. in Romance Languages (French) in 1950. His interest turned to the history of art and Spencer took a second M.A. at Yale in art history in 1951. While working on his Ph.D., he began lecturing at Yale in 1952. His Ph.D.was awarded in 1953 writing his dissertation on Alberti’s painting treatise. Spencer continued teaching at Yale University as an assistant professor until 1958. That year he became professor and (acting) chairman of the art department, University of Florida. In 1962 he accepted a joint appointment as director of the Allen Museum of Art and professor at Oberlin University. He remained there until 1972 when he became head of the Museum Program at the national Endowment for the Arts under Nancy Hanks. In his capacity, he obtained millions of dollars for museums with a particular interest in helping promote centers for conservation. In 1978 Spencer joined the Department of Art and Art History at Duke University as professor of art and chair. He was appointed director of the Duke University Museum of Art (today the Nasher Museum of Art) in 1982, which he held until 1986. He contracted multiple myeloma (bone cancer) and died at his Durham home. Spencer was a tireless campaigner for the academic art museums’ role in the university. In a 1971 Art in America article, he chided university and college art museums as being ill-used and overlooked, a “product of chance.” James Cuno wrote of Spencer, “in the height of the boom in academic museums, Spencer called for an assessment of the phenomenon and, on a case-by-case basis, for a review and redefinition of the purpose of each museum or gallery…a greater diversity.” As a scholar, he was interested in renaissance theory; his book, Andrea del Castagno, examined the patronage structure of Andrea.

    Selected Bibliography

    [dissertation:] Leon Battista Alberti on Painting. Yale University, 1953; edited, Filarete. Treatise on Architecture: being the Treatise by Antonio di Piero Averlino, known as Filarete. 2 vols. New Haven, Yale University Press, 1965; edited, Alberti, Leon Battista. On Painting. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966; “The Lament at the Tomb by Filippino Lippi.” Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 24, no. 1 (1966): 23-34; “University Museum: Accidental Past, Purposeful Future?”. Art in America 59 (July 1971): 84-90, reprinted in, O’Doherty, Brian, ed., Museums in Crisis. New York: G. Braziller, 1972, pp. 131-43; and Newton, H. Travers. “On the Location of Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari.” Art Bulletin 64, no. 1 (March 1982): 45-5;. Andrea del Castagno and his Patrons. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991; “Leonardo da Vinci.” Encyclopedia Britanica.


    “John Spencer; Art Historian, Museum Head.” The News & Observer [Raleigh, NC]. July 17, 1994; Cuno, James. “Assets? Well, Yes of a Kind: Collections in College and University Art Museums and Galleries.” Harvard University Art Museums Professional Training, Occasional Papers 1 (fall 1992),; [John Spencer] Curriculum Vitae. Duke University Archives; personsal correspondence, H. Travers Newton, May 2009, Matthew Spencer, July 2011.


    "Spencer, John R.." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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