John Shearman, 72; Scholar on Italian Renaissance Artists

Times Staff Writer

John Shearman, an art historian, teacher and scholar who was an advisor on the renovation of the Sistine Chapel and a widely respected authority on Raphael and other Italian Renaissance artists, has died. He was 72.

Shearman died Aug. 11 of a heart attack while on vacation with his wife, Kathryn Brush, in the Canadian Rockies.

Shearman retired in 2002 from Harvard University, where he taught fine arts for 15 years and was named Charles Adams University Professor Emeritus in 1994. He had previously taught at Princeton University and Courtauld Institute of Art at the University of London, where he also earned his bachelor's degree and a doctorate.

In a statement, Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers called Shearman "a scholar of immense erudition and penetrating intellect who has made enormous contributions to our understanding of Renaissance art."

In 1966, Shearman helped assess the damage to art and architecture done by a devastating flood in Florence, Italy, and he helped in restoration there.

"He rushed out to the stricken city to help in the rescue efforts, and the short-term effect of that experience on him was shattering," the Independent of London's Julian Gardner wrote in an obituary of Shearman.

Two years ago, Shearman identified an Andrea del Sarto altarpiece that had been lost for 350 years.

He also served on the Pontifical Advisory Commission for the Restoration of the Sistine Chapel, helping oversee the delicate and important work in the Vatican that was completed in 1994. Among other things, Shearman discovered that the chapel's ceiling had been severely cracked before Michelangelo was commissioned by Pope Julius II to paint it in 1508.

Shearman also wrote that the amazing color of the chapel's frescoes -- color that was uncovered by the restoration and that some experts believed Michelangelo had meant to dampen -- was what the master had intended. It was meant to give pleasure, Shearman believed, "like that of a bouquet."

Andrea Bayer, associate curator of European paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and a former student of Shearman, said he "was absolutely one of the most brilliant art historians of his generation" and a great teacher.

His lasting legacy, she said, will be his work on Raphael, a massive book that Shearman completed shortly before his death.

"He brought Raphael back as a living, thinking, inventive artist for a whole generation of people," Bayer said.

Shearman was also an expert on other Renaissance painters, including Nicolas Poussin, del Sarto, Fra Bartolomeo, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.

Meredith Gill, a historian of the Italian Renaissance at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., and also a former student of Shearman's, said Thursday that her former professor's early classic study on 16th century art, "Mannerism," and his pioneering work on Raphael, "are great examples of how he saw cultural forms, whether opera, the decorative arts, garden design or painting, working together as philosophical ideas, as statements of human identity and purpose."

She added, "He never hesitated to question received wisdom, say, about the attribution, interpretation or function of an art object, and to push a question as far as it could possibly go, no matter how difficult or courageous it might be for us."

Gill also remembered Shearman's telling graduate students to leave the library books, go for a walk "and think."

Another of Shearman's students, Deborah Krohn, an associate professor at Bard Graduate Center for the Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design and Culture in New York City, also remembered his telling students who were facing exams or major papers to "take a walk in the woods."

"We'd joke around about it -- we'd have three papers due and four exams and he'd say, 'Oh, take a walk in the woods,' " Krohn said.

Many of his former students joined in writing "Coming About," a Festschrift -- a collection of articles by the colleagues or former students of a noted scholar, published in his or her honor -- in homage to Shearman.

The title -- a sailing term used to warn fellow sailors that the boom is about to come across the boat as it is changing directions -- referred to Shearman's retirement from Harvard last year and his lifelong love of sailing.

"At Princeton in the coldest season he would be seen padding around the campus in boating shoes and no socks," Krohn said, "despite Princeton's distance from any body of water."

Krohn said Shearman "was a very warm person in a kind of distant English way" who was respected and admired by his many students and who was "very generous with his time and his ideas."

Shearman, who was born in Aldershot, England, in 1931, was the author of many books, including "Raphael's Cartoons in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen and the Tapestries for the Sistine Chapel" (1972)" and "Only Connect: Art and the Spectator in the Italian Renaissance" (1992).

His book on Raphael, "Raphael in Early Modern Sources," is forthcoming.

He is survived by his wife, who is a professor of art history at the University of Western Ontario; four children; five grandchildren; and a sister. Memorial services will be held this fall in Cambridge, Mass., and London.

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