James Cahill, Scholar of Chinese Art, Dies at 87

On 21/02/2014 by Site Default

James Cahill at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1985. Saxon Donnelly

James Cahill, one of the foremost authorities on Chinese art, whose interpretations of Chinese painting for the West influenced generations of scholars, died on Friday at his home in Berkeley, Calif. He was 87.

The cause was complications of prostate cancer, his daughter, Sarah Cahill, said.

Professor Cahill, who taught at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1965 until his retirement in 1994, was among a group of eminent art historians who, from the late 1950s to the 1970s, researched and cataloged Chinese painting. At the time, Western interest in Chinese art was far less than it is today, said Patricia Berger, professor of Chinese art at Berkeley and one of his former students.

Working with the Swedish scholar Osvald Siren and later on his own, Professor Cahill recorded and photographed Chinese masterworks, building a canon on which to understand the development of Chinese painting over the centuries, Professor Berger said.

In his analysis of paintings, Professor Cahill typically tried to learn as much as possible about the character of an artist from the brushwork. This formal analysis led to an interest in authenticity, a major theme in the study of Chinese art; in China, copying revered works is a tradition, and some copies are regarded as masterpieces in their own right.

Professor Cahill set off an explosive debate about authenticity in 1999 when he said a painting that had become an important part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Chinese collection was a fake.

The work, a scroll titled “Riverbank,” was said to be by Dong Yuan, a 10th-century painter. Professor Cahill said it was probably the work of Zhang Daqian, a 20th-century Chinese artist, collector and master forger whose own work sells for millions of dollars.

Professor Cahill presented his conclusions during an international symposium at the Met, citing evidence based on the brushwork and seals used in the painting. Maxwell K. Hearn, of the Met’s Asian department, defended the authenticity of the work, and it remains on display at the museum, attributed to Dong Yuan, although Professor Cahill remained convinced that it is by Zhang.

“I don’t think it will be ever finally resolved,” said Julia White, senior curator for Asian art at the Berkeley Art Museum and another student of Professor Cahill’s.

In an email on Tuesday, Mr. Hearn said that few scholars now believe “Riverbank” to be a modern forgery. But he praised Professor Cahill, whom he called “a mentor to us all,” for his healthy skepticism.

Professor Cahill’s son Nick said that his father reveled in such debates, “not for the controversy but for the argument, the dialogue, for the engagement in the field.”

James Francis Cahill was born on Aug. 13, 1926, in Fort Bragg, Calif.  Originally a linguist, he worked as an Army translator in Japan in 1946 and in Korea, where he became interested in collecting paintings, from 1946 to 1948. He received his bachelor’s degree in Oriental languages in 1950 from the University of California, Berkeley, and his master’s and Ph.D. in art history from the University of Michigan.

 In 1954 and 1955 he studied at Kyoto University on a Fulbright scholarship. He joined the staff of the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington in 1956 and was curator of Chinese art there until 1965.

 In 1973 he visited China for the first time as part of a delegation of art historians. Fearing that many works had been destroyed or moved out of the country, he discovered instead that paintings he had been able to see only in old catalogs were still in Beijing.

After that he made frequent visits to China, where he lectured, met with other Chinese art scholars and was given access to painting collections.

Later in the 1970s he began exploring deeper questions about the art, like whether Chinese painting had been influenced by Western images, and he began to branch out from studying the masters and their techniques and look instead at paintings that had been ignored, like the popular works, often by unnamed artists, that Chinese people had in their homes.

In 1978 and 1979 he gave the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard. They were published as a book, “The Compelling Image: Nature and Style in Seventeenth-Century Chinese Painting.”

In 2010 the Smithsonian Institution awarded him the Charles Lang Freer Medal for his lifetime contributions to the history of Asian and Near Eastern art. He left many of his own paintings to the Berkeley Art Museum.

His marriages to Dorothy Dunlap and Hsingyuan Tsao ended in divorce. In addition to Nick and Sarah, children from his first marriage, his survivors include two sons from his second, Benedict and Julian, and six grandchildren. At his death Professor Cahill had just completed a collaboration with Ms. White on an exhibition at the Berkeley Art Museum focused on images of women in Chinese painting of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).

He had been confined to bed in his final few weeks, his daughter said, but he continued to work on a video lecture series on the history of Chinese painting. It can be seen on his website, where he also reflected on his life and illness in what he called Bedridden Blog.

In a December post, he wrote of the lecture series as one part of his legacy. “Basically,” he said, “it is a problem of how to convert what is in my mind, a great store of information and images and ideas that cannot be duplicated in the mind of anyone else alive, into a communicable form so that it is preserved.”


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