Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 5, 2003
Meyer Schapiro Theory and Philosophy of Art: Style, Artist, and Society George Braziller 253 pp.; 38 b/w ills. Paper (0807613576)
Meyer Schapiro Words, Script, and Pictures: Semiotics of Visual Language George Braziller 199 pp.; 85 b/w ills. Cloth $30.00 (0807614165)
Larry Silver Meyer Schapiro as Faustian Scholar: A Centennial Tribute College Art Association

O, what a world of profit and delight,
Of power, of honour, of omnipotence
Is promised to the studious artisan!

Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus (I: 1, 54–57)

Almost a century has passed since Meyer Schapiro (1904–1996) was born; more than half a decade since his death. Yet even after a scholarly career that spanned most of the twentieth century, there is a sense of the unfinished about his legacy. For one thing, his publications are still emerging, including several major public lectures. Even his 1966 Norton lectures on medieval art at Harvard University remain unpublished, as Linda Seidel reminded us at a 2002 CAA Annual Conference session in tribute to the medieval contributions of Schapiro; doubtless, this lacuna resulted in part from misgivings on the part of their author. In a companion essay on Schapiro, Judith Wechsler reminds us that there is often a discrepancy between those works polished and submitted for publication and the others—chiefly, transcribed lectures, such as the series on Impressionism, that have been published posthumously. Wechsler notes Schapiro’s admiration for the unfinished quality of great artworks; not for nothing, then, is Paul Cézanne, the painter with whom he is most associated as an interpreter.

The other unfinished element about the work of Schapiro is his continuously shifting, restlessly self-critical approach to art. What one notices most emphatically in Theory and Philosophy of Art: Style, Artist, and Society, a survey of his published work on theory and method, is the variety of his practice: Marxism, psychoanalysis, and semiotics are just the leading interdisciplinary inquiries that he considered as relevant issues for situating art in relation to meaning. Moreover, this sequence spans his long career, suggesting the flexibility and suppleness of his developing thought, open even to semiotics in its earliest manifestations long before other art historians took up this methodology.

Though his universal art-historical interests and unmatched breadth of learning emerge as the constant testimony of former students, Schapiro, like Goethe’s Faust, seemed never to rest content with his own knowledge and formulations, unwilling to declare to the (intellectual) moment, “Stay, thou art so fair.” Most of us will have never had the privilege of those celebrated visits to Schapiro’s office hours, where former students recall dialogues akin to seminars, with virtually no boundaries of period or place. In any case, this essay is not a discussion of his scholarly personality, but rather of his written contributions to the field of art history. If James Elkins can challenge us about whether the pet themes of Ernst Gombrich are still being considered by art historians today (see his essay at, the omnivorous ideas of Schapiro remain evergreen and fresh, particularly in their full range of diversity.

In some ways, we are all the students of Schapiro through his classic publications, required reading for all graduate students when I was an apprentice more than thirty years ago. Most famous of these is the celebrated “Style” essay, originally published in Alfred Kroeber’s Anthropology Today (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953). It, too, can be described as both restless and pointedly critical (see the fuller exegesis by Alan Wallach, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 55:1 (1997): 11–15).

For Schapiro, style is not just an elucidation of art’s formal characteristics or the trace of date and origin of artworks; rather, it is a “system of forms with a quality and a meaningful expression through which the personality of the artist and the broad outlook of a group are visible” (51). Style also acts as “a vehicle of expression within the group, communicating and fixing certain values of religious, social, and moral life” (51). The historian of art matches “variations of style with historical events and with the varying features of other fields of culture…with the help of common-sense psychology and social theory” (51) to account for traits and changes. This is not narrow connoisseurship of the dominant kind still practiced when those lines were penned (and two decades later when I was a graduate student). Instead, one sees the ambitions of this distinctive mind, the pursuit of wider interpretive uses of artworks as social products as well as objects of individual creativity. From this close examination follows Schapiro’s pursuit of religion, philosophy, and history, no less for the anonymous sculptor of Souillac than for Cézanne and Pablo Picasso (see Wechsler and Erik Inglis’s essays). Schapiro’s text further examines the history of style’s definitions as well as the leading earlier theories (chiefly Germanic) up to Aloïs Riegl, deconstructing (before the letter) the limitations of a formalism that not only neglects culture and history but also judges by its own present habits. Joining Gombrich’s later hobbyhorse, Schapiro also criticizes Hegelian notions of unified style as emergent from some prior Weltanschauung, or even chiefly from a dominant artistic personality. He warns against what we might now call “vulgar” Marxism but, at the same time, shows his own Marxist roots by seeing potential for using this lens of social theory to relate the aesthetic to the social, to consider the role of art to ideology, and to suggest areas of conflict or differentiation. Schapiro evades the resolution of a definitive statement of method and wisely acknowledges the relationship between ideology and the principal concerns of art emerging from broad social constructions: “Cultures, empires, dynasties, cities, classes, churches, etc.” and those “periods which mark significant stages in social development” (99).

For students of modernism, the seminal essays by Schapiro on art and (emerging consumer) society were penned in the mid-1930s for Marxist Quarterly: “The Social Bases of Art” and “The Nature of Abstract Art” (see the analysis by Thomas Crow, Modern Art in the Common Culture [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996], 12–16). In similar fashion, medievalists took inspiration from his fundamental studies of social tensions and conflicts in Romanesque sculpture, written at the same period (as reviewed by Otto Karl Werckmeister in Art Quarterly 2 (1979): 211–18; or surveyed by Michael Camille in Oxford Art Journal 17 (1994): 65–67, and Willibald Sauerländer, “The Great Outsider,” New York Review of Books, 2 February 1995). Throughout these early Marxist analyses, Schapiro insisted on examining the visual characteristics of art objects as well as paying close attention to their roles in history and communities of use, whether in the France of royally supported monasteries or the France of bourgeois consumers.

Schapiro’s own immersed engagement with modern artists, exemplified in his monographs on Vincent van Gogh and Cézanne in the early 1950s (and pursued later in the classic study of Cézanne’s apples in 1968), made him particularly sensitive to the issues of relating personality and psychology to the extant work of an artist—in some respects the “common-sense psychology” that he had also adduced in the contemporary “Style” essay. But the most celebrated of Schapiro’s encounters with psychology involves a dual focus: “Freud and Leonardo (or Freud’s Leonardo),” a lecture from 1955 that was characteristically not published until 1968 (and later provided with an addendum in 1994). Schapiro’s subtitle reminds the reader that this is an “art historical study,” and the text is a corrective through the history of forms, not an exercise in psychoanalysis. W. J. T. Mitchell complains that such counterfactual argumentation evades Sigmund Freud’s speculative interpretation of the Renaissance painter (“Schapiro’s Legacy,” Art in America 83 (April 1995): 29), yet it is characteristic of Schapiro that his interpretation requires grounding in the content of a picture (in this respect, it anticipates his later formal investigation of semiotics; see below) rather than the “discovery”—even the invention—of hidden, if telling forms, such as Freud’s configuration of a “vulture” in this single painting, the Louvre Madonna and Child with St. Anne, or the psychoanalyst’s distortions of both the Leonardo text and biographical documents. Moreover, the history of types of both the “Anna Selbdritt” triad and even the triumphal, youthful smile of the holy women undercuts the inventiveness ascribed by Freud to Leonardo’s representation. This critical argumentation might just be another example of the resistance to universal theorizing that Schapiro had already demonstrated in his “Style” essay a few years earlier. But it also shows how the scholar uses the forms themselves as the springboard for interpretation, just as he would later draw upon the erotic connotations of apples in addressing Cézanne’s obsession with that particular incomplete still-life form.

There might also be a telling cautionary note of the importance of remaining centered first on one’s own field before trying to cross disciplinary boundaries, but Schapiro can hardly be faulted for judging Freud’s application of psychoanalytic theory as misapplied “to a problem in which the data, it must be said, are extremely sparse” (153). In Leonardo’s St. John the Baptist, Schapiro is even willing to raise new issues for psychological interpretation based on evident shifts of imagery, chiefly the substitution of a lamb for John the Baptist between the earlier cartoon and the Louvre painting: “Here, following Freud’s analysis of Leonardo’s personality, one may ask whether in this image of the fatherless Holy Family, Leonardo does not project (and conceal) a narcissistic and homosexual wish in replacing the figure of Christ’s playmate John an ascetic and the victim of an incestuous woman by the lamb which stands for both John and himself” (178–79). Schapiro also calls for serious study of other Leonardo works with erotic content, notably the lost Leda and the Swan. His concluding assessment of the shortcomings of other psychological studies of artists is as critical as were his “style” investigations: Schapiro bemoans “the habit of building explanations of complex phenomena on a single datum and the too-little attention given to history and the social situation in dealing with individuals, and even with the origin of customs, beliefs, and institutions” (187). Psychology’s principles are not at fault here, but rather are misapplied, with not enough solid foundation: “To apply them fruitfully, the analyst will need a fuller knowledge of Leonardo’s life and art and of the culture of his time” (187).

Schapiro also takes on Martin Heidegger and the philosophical conception of the art object in his discussion of van Gogh’s shoes in a 1968 festschrift article, “The Still Life as a Personal Object,” which spawned its own ongoing dialogue on the matter in Jacques Derrida’s celebrated The Truth in Painting (Paris: Flammarion, 1978). Schapiro never responded directly to the book, though he did write the essay “Further Thoughts” in 1994, expanding his discussion of van Gogh still lifes in relation to the philosopher’s claims. Here again, the dispute is discipline-based, and Schapiro maintains his home ground against the philosophical interloper. He insists that Derrida’s own ruminations, which project art out of unselfconscious, everyday objecthood, neglect the nuances of the artworks themselves in favor of an overriding concept. Schapiro remains steadfast in his role as critical reader of pictures, using the artist’s letters to correct particular errors of fact (van Gogh is, after all, an artist whom he had well researched) by the philosopher, who had himself like an artist “imagined everything and projected it into the painting” (138). Key to Schapiro’s reading is the ownership and personal significance of these shoes to the artist himself—the boots were not just a general type of object or class marker. Once more for Schapiro, theory—whether psychology or philosophy—can only emerge from the intense experience and meticulous research of particular objects and makers within intellectual nominalism, or else it will distort or lose sight of meaningful particulars in order to apply its points. Attention and rigor remain paramount, yet Schapiro never stops learning about his own craft from the insights of other, more universalizing theories of art making.

In Schapiro’s lifelong quest for a systematic outlook of “the principles of form construction and expression” (100) he eventually turned as a hopeful and pioneer contributor to the nascent discipline of semiotics; much of this scholarship has been collected in Words, Script, and Pictures: Semiotics of Visual Language. He began with “Words and Pictures: On the Literal and the Symbolic in the Illustration of a Text” from 1969 and continued with “Script in Pictures: Semiotics of Visual Language” in 1976, in both cases not only returning to his original home ground of medieval text-image issues, but also ranging widely through selected works as diverse as classical vase paintings and modernist canvases by Picasso or Marc Chagall. Another text in the anthology, “Field and Vehicle in Image-Signs,” considers “the non-mimetic elements of the image-sign” (1), namely such conventional and nonverbal elements as format, frame, and size (of the whole and of its relative parts). This is “critical seeing” at its most reflective, the distillation of a lifetime of experience reduced, like a great sauce, to its essentials. As a process, it acknowledges the role of Schapiro’s own relentless explorations as a scholar working for a larger community: “Moments of sudden revelation and intense experience of unity and completeness which are shared in others‚ scrutiny” (49).

On closer inspection and with a generation of cottage-industry semiotics behind us, even in the visual realm (chiefly built upon a Lacanian foundation, whose momentum built up well after these three Schapiro essays were written), it turns out that his work in this area is not unlike his analysis of medieval art, particularly of manuscripts. Not coincidentally, his first publication, “Words and Pictures,” focuses on text-image relationships in medieval art, chiefly manuscripts, and the second, “Script in Pictures,” was written in honor of a distinguished fellow medievalist, Carl Nordenfalk. Using selected examples, such as the Biblical text of Moses raising his arms to invoke divine assistance in a battle against the Amalekites (Exod. 17:9–13), Schapiro produces a visual, verbal, and historical exegesis (25–45) that not only invokes traditional Christian typological and symbolic use of this description and particular illustrations of it in later works, but also marshals medieval accounts of rulers who practiced the same gesture in their own wars, or who at least invoked the image, such as Pope Urban in his speech proclaiming the First Crusade in 1095. Schapiro also considers extended innovations from the basic image type in conjunction with manuscript depictions of coronations of medieval emperors. He also traces the roots of such raised arms to suggest supported power lying deep within the ancient art of preclassic Hittites and Babylonians and even in later Benin plaques from Africa, just as Fritz Saxl used Aby Warburg’s method of pictorial genealogies to decode layers of meaning in later instances of a motif. Plus ça change. Schapiro then goes on to consider variants of the subject, such as the crossed arms of the patriarch Jacob blessing his grandsons (Gen. 48:13–19; compare the pioneering and related iconographic history by Wolfgang Stechow, cited at note 74 in Schapiro’s Words, Script, and Pictures. The scholar imagines the particular moment when such gestures changed with the shift from symbolic representation to emphasis on narrative action in the thirteenth-century Bibles moraliseés, or picture bibles. This shift leads to a final section (69–95), replete with examples from other periods and cultures, which focuses on more general considerations about frontality and profile as forms of expression and as norms of representation: “Basically different modes of composition co-exist within the same personal or collective style, adapted to different kinds of content, like the modes in music and the genres in poetry” (71). The span of examples in “Script in Pictures” is even more expansive, though the core remains medieval in focus. A tour de force, it scrutinizes on the issue of the materialization of texts in images, rolls, and roles (157), including even the flat plane of artist’s signatures in paintings. Contrasting medieval with later painting, he characterizes the earlier use of language in images as “an art in which the bond with language determines some pictorial features; painting, then, is like language in its sequential narrative order, its literalness, and its submission to symbolism. Founded on texts, the image admits the written word as a concrete component free to rotate in the two dimensions of the picture plane” (181).

While his focus remains entirely on the visualization of a gesture (or a text) in a scene, its interpretation, as ever for Schapiro, remains richly grounded in a holistic kind of scholarship that is always period appropriate. How different from the decontextualized and generalized readings of imagery contemporary interpreters have made under the banner of semiotics!

Our current revived interest in Warburg and his method (which has curiously neglected Fritz Saxl’s disciplined applications of that approach) now finds a ready echo in Schapiro’s applied form of early semiotics, firmly grounded in the same historical roots. This turn thus should not be seen as an abandonment of the committed sociohistorical criticism of Shapiro’s earlier Marxist period (as well as his study of Romanesque sculpture cycles). Instead, it represents a closing of a circle, where the scholar now attends first to the signifying content of a scene in its full realization, while still considering that content an entry point into the fullest possible explication and elucidation of an artwork as a social and historical artifact.

In his choice of artworks and topics, Schapiro is a perfect complement to his contemporary, the real Warburgian, Erwin Panofsky. Both art historians pursued the complex disjunction between tradition and innovation. For Schapiro, the highly charged symbolic and formal aspects of art—particularly in Romanesque carvings or self-conscious paintings by van Gogh or Cézanne—were intriguing precisely because of their blend of the representational with formal experiment. For Panofsky, on the other hand, the rich dialogue between mature pictorial traditions, particularly a classical, learned tradition, and the complexities of its personal variations (where Titian or Albrecht Dürer were the consummate practitioners) made for a centered study of a “self-defined” period of the Renaissance. If we seek to find their closest points of contact, it would be in Schapiro’s later, semiotic essays in medieval art and Panofsky’s early book, Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1939).

For all of their differences in temperament and background, Schapiro, like Panofsky, really sought to employ all of his broad curiosity and prodigious learning in the service of making images understandable. One can now see well how inspiring was his example, now richly re-presentated in the accessible anthologies of his work published by Braziller in the 1990s, but one can also see how inimitable and incomparable was his combination of erudition and penetrating, critical (in all senses of that word) inquiry. When considering such a powerful written legacy, what an inspiring yet intimidating experience that office hour visit to Schapiro must have been!

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