Full Name: Vermeule, Cornelius C., III
- Cornelius C. Vermeule III
Date Born: 1925
Date Died: 2008
Place Born: Queenstown, Ireland
Place Died: Cambridge, Middlesex, MA, USA
Home Country/ies: United States
Subject Area(s): Classical
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, curator of classical art, 1957-1996. Vermeule’s grandfather was Cornelius Clarkson Vermeule I (1859-1950), a prominent civil engineer for New Jersey and New York. His father was Colonel Cornelius Vermeule II (1896-1943) director of the New Jersey Public Works Administration, and his mother was Catherine Comstock (Vermeule). The younger Vermeule began collecting ancient coins–a lifelong interest–as a boy in 1934 in England. Vermeule entered Harvard in 1943 but the suicide of his father and onset of World War II caused him to join the Army. He was trained in Japanese and sent to the Pacific Theater and remained in Japan after the war as a language expert, rising to the rank of captain. He graduated from Harvard University in 1947 with an A. B. and an A. M. in 1951 where he was a student of George M. A. Hanfmann. His Ph.D. was granted at the University of London in 1953 while he worked as an assistant for Sir John Soane’s Museum cataloging its Greek and Roman antiquities. He returned to the United States in 1953 to teach at the University of Michigan as a professor of Fine Arts until 1955. That year he moved to Bryn Mawr College as Professor of archaeology, teaching there until 1957 when was appointed curator of classical collections for the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. He married a Bryn Mawr graduate student, Emily Dickinson Townsend (1928-2001) the same year. He established the coin room at Harvard’s Fogg art museum (under Hanfmann). While at the Museum, Vermeule was also a Lecturer in fine arts at Smith College between 1960-64. He was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in 1969. When the Museum’s director, Perry T. Rathbone was relieved of his duties during the 1970 centennial celebration because of the acquisition of a stolen Raphael, Vermeule assumed the acting directorship. It was during his time as director that the Museum purchased an important work, Cézanne’s last self-portrait. For the 1973-1974 academic year Vermeule was a visiting faculty at Yale University. In 1978 he received an appointment at Boston College. Vermeule’s tenure as curator was marked by the acquisition of two large vases portraying the fall of Troy and the death of Agamemnon, a Roman portrait of an old man, and a Minoan gold double ax. He retired in 1996 and was succeeded by John Herrmann. His wife also taught and wrote in the area of classical art history. Curators who trained under Vermeule include Marion True and Carlos Picon. Vermeule was independently wealthy; his retirement was done in part so that his salary could keep others on staff during budget cuts. A highly eccentric man, his numerous gifts to the Department were sometimes disguised under pseudonyms, “Wentworth Bunsen” and “Sir Northwold Nuffler.” Vermeule suffered a stroke in 2008 and died at age 83. Vermeule’s acquisitions of classical objects during his later years as curator Classical Art Department were overshadowed by accusations of unethical practice. He and the Museum were accused of obtaining more than 60 Greek and Roman antiquities from illegally excavated sites smuggled out of their home country. In 1984 he advised the billionaire William I. Koch to buy an unusual collection of classical coins, despite warnings from a Swiss bank that the coins were stolen from Turkey. Koch was later forced to return the coins in 1999. Vermeule bought the upper half of a classical statue of Hercules which the Turkish government claimed was part of a figure in Antalya Museum, Turkey. Despite increasing standards by the museum community not to buy works of questionable provenance, Vermeule continued to collect aggressively, especially from a dealer of “unclear provenances”, Robert Hecht. Under Vermeule’s direction the Museum acquired in 1987, 1989, and 1991, three South Italian vases. The 1993 Museum book, Vase Painting in Italy, caused controversy through its admission that these Apulian vases were acquired despite a lack of provenance. As a scholar, Vermeule was unusually prolific for a museum curator. His writing concentrated on the continuity of Greek to Roman to Late Antique culture in the Mediterranean.
Art and Archaeology of Antiquity. 4 vols. London: Pindar Press, 2001-2003; [as Isao Tsukinabe] Old Bodrum. Somerset Society, 1964; A Bibliography of Applied Numismatics in the Fields of Greek and Roman Archaeology and the Fine Arts. London: Spink, 1956; and Neuerburg, Norman, and Lattimore, Helen. Catalogue of the Ancient Art in the J. Paul Getty Museum: the Larger Statuary, Wall Paintings and Mosaics. Malibu, CA: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 1973; European Art and the Classical Past. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964; The Cult Images of Imperial Rome. Rome: Bretschneider, 1987; Greek Sculpture and Roman Taste: the Purpose and Setting of Graeco-Roman Art in Italy and the Greek Imperial East. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1977; Numismatic Art in America: Aesthetics of the United States Coinage. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 1971; and Brauer, Amy. Stone Sculptures: the Greek, Roman, and Etruscan Collections of the Harvard University Art Museums. Cambridge, MA: The Museums, 1990; The Goddess Roma in the Art of the Roman Empire. Cambridge, MA: Spink, 1959; “Aphrodisiaca: Satyr, Maenad and Eros: a Romano-Hellenistic Marble Group of the Third Century A.D. in Boston.” Essays in Memory of Karl Lehmann. New York: Institute of Fine Arts,, 1964. pp. 359-374.
Robinson, Walter V. “New MFA Link Seen to Looted Artifacts.” Boston Globe December 27, 1998, p. 1; Temin, Christine. “A Not-So-Classic Curator.” Boston Globe September 10, 1995, p. 16; “Former PWA Chief Found Dead on Ferry, Apparently a Suicide.” New York Times August 8, 1943, p. 32; [obituary:] Martin, Douglas. “Cornelius C. Vermeule III, a Curator of Classical Antiquities, Is Dead at 83.” New York Times December 9, 2008