The University of Chicago News Office
Dec. 17, 2003 Press Contact: Josh Schonwald
(773) 702-6421
jschonwa@uchicago.edu
 

Historian of French Art Francis H. Dowley, 1915-2003

Francis H. Dowley, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Art History at the University of Chicago, died Friday night, Dec. 5, of natural causes at the University Hospitals. He was 87 years old. A renowned expert on the art of early modern France and a lifelong bachelor with an “absolute devotion to the unfashionable,” Dowley’s distinctive approach produced highly original work and students.

Dowley, “Frank” to those who knew him, was described as a sovereign master of his subject who approached its study directly, though close reading and intimate knowledge of the artwork itself. Mary Harvey, Associate Provost of the University who earned a Ph.D. under Dowley, said that “his command of the oeuvres of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century artists was encyclopedic. To study Poussin, or Rembrandt, with Mr. Dowley was to grapple with the inconsistencies of style and entertain subtle nuances of meaning. His appetite for images was insatiable - and his love for them infectious.” Barbara Stafford, the William B. Ogden Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Art History and the College, added that Dowley encouraged people to look at important subjects that were not trendy: when Dowley did his Ph.D. work on an crucial series of 18th century sculptures, “nobody was looking at sculpture, it was all painting, and he really opened up the field.” His dissertation was never published; instead, he gave ideas to students and influenced the field through them. “Frank didn’t write a lot, his students did it for him. Underneath all that quirk was an enormous intellectual generosity.”

Stafford characterized Dowley as a uniquely vibrant personality: “Frank was lovely, quirky, intimidating - he knew everything about everything about his period and had a band of absolutely devoted students. He had this kind of French courtliness, a gallantry maintained always, but he was also a bachelor who never married, had a rather monkish existence and lived for many years in the [University of Chicago’s famous] Quadrangle club, if you can imagine that. He finally, after years and years, moved because the club needed the space, and when he moved there were mountains of paper, papers on papers, books on books. He had one black suit, shiny with age, one white shirt and one black tie. He was eccentric in the best way: he was his own person. And he absolutely adored his students and did everything for them. If you were in the department you felt you had to study with Frank Dowley, and he remained loyal to you throughout his life.”

Born in New York City on December 13, 1915, Francis Hotham Dowley graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Princeton University in 1936, going on to earn an M.A. in Philosophy in 1941 and a Ph.D. in Art History in 1955, both from the University of Chicago. During World War II he served as an ensign in the U.S. Navy, an experience he recalled warmly in later years. From 1946-47, Dowley held a fellowship at the Institute of Fine Arts in New York, and from 1947-49, he researched eighteenth-century French portraiture in Paris on a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies. He was hired to teach at Chicago in 1949, and spent the rest of his career here, receiving tenure in 1958 and a full professorship in 1974. He served as a member of the American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies, the College Art Association of America and La Société de l’Histoire de l’Art français. He wrote such pieces as “Sobriety and Elegance in the Baroque” and “Thoughts on Poussin, time, and narrative: The Israelites gathering manna in the desert,” in which he laid out his approach, “one founded in the examination of the visual work of art as an end in itself, not the visual manifestation of aesthetic theory.”

Harvey remembers a human being who was down to earth and approachable despite his brilliance, whose “office door was always open to any student, and many with no particular interest in his field of Baroque art were regular visitors. He was ever eager to discuss an art historical problem, to offer bibliographic advice from his astonishing card files, or perhaps to share some campus gossip over instant coffee.”

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Last modified at 11:20 AM CST on Thursday, December 18, 2003.

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