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Taylor, Joshua C.

    Full Name: Taylor, Joshua C.

    Other Names:

    • Joshua Charles Taylor

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1917

    Date Died: 1981

    Place Born: Hillsboro, Washington, OR, USA

    Place Died: Georgetown, Washington, DC, USA

    Home Country/ies: United States

    Subject Area(s): American (North American) and museums (institutions)

    Career(s): directors (administrators), educators, and museum directors


    Americanist art history professor at the University of Chicago 1960-1974, and director, National Museum of American Art, 1970-1981. Taylor was the son of James Edmond and Anna L. M. Scott (Taylor). He attended the Portland Museum art school before entering Reed College, where he received his degree in 1939. He initially worked as a designer for ballet and theatre groups including the San Francisco Opera Ballet. He also taught at his alma mater. After World War II was declared Taylor joined the U.S. Army infantry, fighting in the European Theater and rising to the rank of major. He was awarded the Bronze Star for his service. He returned to Reed after the war where he received a master’s degree in literature, before entering Princeton University graduate program in art history. He received a second master’s degree in 1949. Taylor joined the Department of Art at the University of Chicago, continuing to pursue his Ph.D. from Princeton, which was awarded in 1956. His dissertation topic was on the American 19th-century artist William Page. The same year he won an award at Chicago for teaching excellence. In he published perhaps his most well-known book, Learning to Look: a Handbook for the Visual Arts. The primer became a standard text for art history, humanities, and museum courses selling over 300,000 copies in two editions. Taylor became a full professor in 1960 and was named the William Rainey Harper chair of art history in 1963. Together with his former student, Peter H. Selz and Herschel B. Chipp, Taylor published the first book on primary sources of American art history, Theories of Modern Art. He was appointed director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art in 1970. As director, Taylor doubled the collections of the National Museum. Taylor oversaw the opening of the Renwick Gallery (a department of the National Museum Collection) in 1972. In 1974, Taylor launched a computerized project to list every American painting created before 1914. He launched the major show of Elihu Vedder at the Museum in 1979. Bilingual in English and Spanish (as well as the standard art research languages of Italian, German and Dutch) he for many years maintained a home in Taxco, Mexico, and was instrumental in preserving the historic district of that small town. Taylor served on the board of the Museum of Contemporary Art of Chicago. He suffered a heart attack in 1981 and died in a Georgetown hospital. He was succeeded by Charles C. Eldredge (b. 1937). In 1987, his manuscript for Nineteenth-century Theories of Art was published. His Chicago students, in addition to Chipp, included the art historian Shirley Blum. His tenure at the National Museum was marked by creating study and scholarship positions in an attempt to make museums scholarly training grounds the way universities were. He avoided “blockbuster” shows, once quipping that “more than five people in front of one painting is a mob.” His book Learning to Look: A Handbook for the Visual Arts was the heart of his teaching in that before all else he taught the art of seeing (Blum).

    Selected Bibliography

    [dissertation:] William Page: “The American Titian.” Princeton University, 1956; Learning to Look: a Handbook for the Visual Arts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957; Futurism. New York: Museum of Modern Art/Doubleday, 1961; and Chipp, Hershel B., and Selz, Peter. Theories of Modern Art: a Source Book by Artists and Critics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968; translated, Fernández, Justino. A Guide to Mexican Art: from its Beginnings to the Present. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969; and Dillenberger, Jane. The Hand and the Spirit: Religious Art in America, 1700-1900. Berkeley,CA: University Art Museum, 1972; and Fink, Lois Marie. Academy: the Academic Tradition in American Art: an Exhibition Organized on the Occasion of the One Hundred and Fiftieth Anniversary of the National Academy of Design, 1825-1975. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1975; and Cawelti, John G. America as Art. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institute Press for the National Collection of Fine Arts, 1976; The Fine Arts in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979;and Soria, Regina, and Dillenberger, Jane, and Murry, Richard. Perceptions and Evocations: the Art of Elihu Vedder. Washington, DC: National Collection of Fine Arts/Smithsonian Institution Press, 1979; Nineteenth-century Theories of Art. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.


    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. 149 mentioned; Richard, Paul. “Champion of the Unlikely.” Washington Post April 28, 1981, p. B1; [obituaries:] Barbanel, Josh. “Joshua C. Taylor, Art Historian And Smithsonian Museum Chief; Computerized Inventory.” New York Times April 27, 1981, p. 54; Conroy, Sarah Booth. “Director of Smithsonian’s Museum.” Washington Post April 28, 1981, p. C6; Shirley Blum, personal correspondence June 2009.


    "Taylor, Joshua C.." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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