Meiss, Millard (pronounced "Meese")

Date born: 1904

Place born: Cincinnati, OH

Date died: 1975

Place died: Princeton, NJ

Historian of late medieval and early Renaissance art. Meiss' parents were Leon Meiss and Clara Loewenstein (Meiss). He studied architecture at Princeton University, receiving his B. A. in 1926. He worked as a construction supervisor in New York two years because his father, a businessman, initially refused to fund graduate work in art history. Meiss returned to scholarship in art history at the Graduate school at Harvard University in 1928, marrying Margaret Louchheim, later a psychotherapist, the same year. He transferred almost immediately to New York University to study medieval and Renaissance painting. His master's thesis, written under Walter Friedlaender (q.v.) was published as his first article, appearing in the Art Bulletin in 1931. His dissertation, on Francesco Traini, written under under Richard Offner (q.v.) and influenced by Erwin Panofsky (q.v.), was approved for his Ph.D. in 1933. Meiss taught as an instructor at NYU, accepting a position at Columbia University in 1934. Between 1940 and 1942, he served as the editor of Art Bulletin, and later became an honorary trustee of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. After World War II he chaired the American Committee for the Restoration of Italian Monuments. In 1951 he published his first book, the product of a Fulbright grant, Painting in Florence and Siena after the Black Death, a groundbreaking tome combining social history and rigorous connoisseurship. Meiss received the Haskins Medal in 1953 and the same year moved from Columbia to Harvard to be professor of art and curator of painting that the Fogg Art Museum. The fine collection of Italian "primitives" collected by Edward Forbes (q.v.) was a strong incentive. In 1958 he left Harvard to be Professor of Art at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ, succeeding Panofsky, his former teacher at NYU. In 1962 he published, with Leonetto Tintori, The Painting of The Life of St. Francis in Assisi, a book using technical evidence in mural painting to settle large debates of art history. He edited the Festschrift for Panofsky in 1963. In 1966, the floods in Florence led him to organize and chair the Committee to Rescue Italian Art, whose mission was to restore the damaged frescoes and buildings. His research focus broadened in the 1960s to include manuscript illumination. His series French Painting in the Time of Jean de Berry began appearing in 1967. Meiss' Great Age of Fresco: Discoveries, Recoveries and Survivals, 1970, was the result of excavation of Santa Croce after the flood, which revealed sinopia cartoons. It is not only a technical explanation of the history of fresco painting, but an account of the rescue of Italian art. His reputation as a scholar gained him membership into the American Academy of Arts, the American Philosophical Society, and the British Academy, as well as several French and Italian academic societies. In 1974 Meiss was diagnoses with a terminal illness. He resigned from the Institute, dying at home in his study, surrounded by his family and books. The College Art Association named its grant for book illustration after him. His papers form part of the Archives of American Art.

Like his teacher, Offner, Meiss sought to incorporate traditional connoisseurship methodology into art-historical work of a broader range which included social history and Panofsky's brand of iconography. His 1951 book, Painting in Florence and Siena after the Black Death, suggested that the horrors of the plague in Italy caused a change in iconography and painting style. In the years since its publication, this thesis has been challenged by Bruce Cole (q.v.) (who asserted the change in style was underway before the 1348 plague) and Hendrik van Os (q.v.), who felt Meiss reacting to the Weltanschauung of contemporary painting (Rothko's black paintings). Meiss was among the first American scholars to have benefited from the arrival of German scholars fleeing the Nazis in the 1930s and was considered among their best students. His articles on the reconstruction of an altarpiece by Piero della Francesca was described by John Pope-Hennessy (q.v.) as "brilliant." His caustic review of Florentine Painting by the Marxist art historian Frederick Antal (q.v.) in the Art Bulletin underlines the limits both of Antal's methodology and Meiss' tolerance of social analysis.

Home Country: United States

Sources: Kleinbauer, W. Eugene. Research Guide to the History of Western Art. Sources of Information in the Humanities, no. 2. Chicago: American Library Association, 1982, p. 67 mentioned, pp. 81, 117; Kleinbauer, W. Eugene. Modern Perspectives in Western Art History: An Anthology of 20th-Century Writings on the Visual Arts. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971, p. 48 mentioned, pp. 51, 47 n. 96; Bazin, Germain. Histoire de l'histoire de l'art: de Vasari à nos jours. Paris: Albin Michel, 1986, p. 483; The Dictionary of Art; Maginnnis, Hayden. Painting in the Age of Giotto: A Historical Reevaluation. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997, p. 167;[obituaries:] (reminiscences) "Millard Meiss: In Memoriam." Lee, Rensselaer W. and Pope-Hennessy. John. Art Journal 35 no. 3. (Spring, 1976): 261-262; Maginnis, Hayden B. J. "Millard Meiss (25th March 1904-12th June 1975)." The Burlington Magazine 117 no. 869, [Special Issue Devoted to the Italian Trecento in Memory of Millard Meiss.] (August 1975): 544-547; Lee, Rensselaer W. "Millard Meiss (1904-1975)." Year Book of the American Philosophical Society 1976, pp. 95-100; Connaissance des Arts no. 283 (September 1975): 23; Glueck, Grace. "Millard Meiss Dead at 71; Renaissance Art Authority." New York Times June 14, 1975, p. 30; Pope-Hennessy, John. "Dr Millard Meiss: A Distinguished Art Historian." The Times (London) June 25, 1975 p. 16.

Bibliography: [master's thesis:] Ugolino Lorenzetti. New York University, 1930, published under the same title, Art Bulletin 13 (September 1931): 376-97; [dissertation:] The Problem of Francesco Traini (Italy). New York University, 1933, published, Art Bulletin 15 (June 1933): 96-173; [collected essays:] The Painters Choice: Problems in the Interpretation of Renaissance Art. New York: Harper & Row, 1976; "The Madonna of Humility." Art Bulletin 18 (1936): 435-64; "Light as Form and Symbol in Some Fifteenth-Century Paintings." Art Bulletin 27 (1945): 175-81; Painting in Florence and Siena after the Black Death. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1951; War's Toll of Italian Art: an Exhibition Sponsored by the American Committee for the Restoration of Italian Monuments. s.l.: s.n., 1940s; Giotto and Assisi. New York: New York University Press, 1960; Andrea Mantegna as Illuminator: an Episode in Renaissance Art, Humanism, and Diplomacy. New York: Columbia University Press, 1957; Giovanni Bellini's St. Francis in the Frick Collection. Princeton: Frick Collection/Princeton University Press, 1964; "Jan van Eyck and the Italian Renaissance." Proceedings of the Eighteenth International Congress of the History of Art. Venice: CHA, 1955, pp. 58-69; and Tintori, Leonetto. The Painting of The Life of St. Francis in Assisi. New York: New York University Press, 1962. [facsimile editions:] and Thomas, Marcel. The Rohan Master: a Book of Hours: Bibliotheque nationale, Paris (M.S. Latin 9471). New York: G. Braziller, 1973; French Painting in the Time of Jean de Berry (series) volume I: The Late XIVth Century and the Patronage of the Duke. New York, 1967; volume II: The Boucicaut Master. 1969, volume III: The Limbourg and their contemporaries. 1974; "Documented Altarpiece by Piero della Francesca: Reconstruction of Altarpiece Made for the Church of S Agostino in Borgo Sansepolcro." Art Bulletin 23 (March 1941): 53-68; "Once Again Piero della Francesca's Montefeltro Altarpiece." Art Bulletin 48 (June 1966): 203-6.