Art historian viewed works from social, political standpoints

Rourke is a Times staff writer.

Albert Boime, an art historian, educator and author who evaluated art in its social and political context for new insights into French Neo-Classicism, Impressionism and other prominent art movements of the last 250 years, has died. He was 75.

Boime, a faculty member at UCLA for more than 30 years, died Saturday of complications from a blood disorder at Kaiser Permanente hospital in Los Angeles, said his wife, Myra. He had been a longtime resident of Mar Vista.

In close to 20 books and hundreds of scholarly articles, Boime approached artworks as social documents, not simply artistic expressions, and demonstrated how artists are influenced by the historical events of their lifetime.


He went outside traditional research methods that evaluated one artwork in the context of others and looked for influences among an artist’s teachers and the important art movements of the day.

“My work presents an alternative view and attempts to keep pace with the advancements made by social history,” Boime said in a 1995 interview with the Rutgers Art Review.

In “The Social History of Modern Art,” a series of books that Boime worked on through much of his career, he explored French art from the mid-1700s to the late 1800s, relating critical periods including the French Revolution and the age of Napoleon Bonaparte to artists’ choices of subject matter and other aspects of their work.

In many of his books, Boime called attention to long-overlooked artists and demonstrated their influence. “Thomas Couture and the Eclectic Vision” (1980) reestablished Couture as a prominent realist painter who had been overshadowed by several of his students, particularly Edouard Manet, a founder of Impressionism.

“Al Boime put the time in with artists who were less known, less glamorous but very important to the history of art,” Richard Schiff, professor of art at the University of Texas at Austin, said this week.

Boime first captured wide attention with his 1971 book, “The Academy and French Painting in the 19th Century.” In it he explored French Impressionism in relation to the neo-classical painting style that the Impressionists broke from. Many art historians had dismissed classical realist painting as irrelevant to the new movement.


“We understand Impressionism better when we see what art the Impressionists were reacting against,” Schiff said. Boime’s way of exploring art movements was “not the standard,” Schiff said, but it became standard.

One of Boime’s most highly publicized articles focused on “The Starry Night,” the best-known painting of Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh. The image shows a view from the window of the asylum in Saint-Remy, France, where Van Gogh was confined in 1889. The dark sky is filled with bright stars, a crescent moon and swirls of light.

Boime argued that the painting was based on Van Gogh’s careful observations of the sky, not simply his imagination.

To prove it, Boime compared the painting to a re-creation of the same stretch of sky at 4 a.m. June 19, 1889, the day Van Gogh wrote a letter to his brother, Theo, saying that he had finished the painting. The moon and the brightest star, Venus, were in the same place in Van Gogh’s painting and in the re-creation of the predawn sky.

Van Gogh added swirls of light, a tree and other details from his memory, but as a whole the sky scene “tallies with astronomical facts at the time the painting was executed,” Boime told members of the American Astronomical Society in 1985.

“Al’s research required intense attention and concentration,” said David Kunzle, Boime’s colleague at UCLA. “He set a new standard with his work.”


Boime was born March 17, 1933, in St. Louis and earned his doctorate at Columbia University before he began his career in art history. He taught at the State University of New York at Stony Brook for five years starting in 1967 and at the State University of New York at Binghamton for six years before he joined the UCLA faculty in 1978. He remained at UCLA until his death.

In addition to his wife of 44 years, Boime is survived by two sons, Eric and Robert; a brother, Irving; and five grandchildren.

A memorial service is planned for 1 p.m. Sunday at Hillside Memorial Park, 6001 W. Centinela Ave., Los Angeles. Contributions in his name can be made to the Workman’s Circle ( or the Center for the Study of Political Graphics (