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Professor Emeritus Harrie Vanderstappen dies at 86

Feb. 2, 2007

University of Chicago Professor Emeritus, Reverend Henricus “Harrie” Vanderstappen, a pioneering scholar of Chinese art, and one of the first Catholic priests to hold a professorship at a secular university, died on Thursday, January 25 of an apparent heart attack.  He was 86.

An expert in the art of the Yuan and Ming periods, Vanderstappen was part of a small group of art historians in the post World War II period that changed the way Chinese art was studied in the West. “He was one of the first Western scholars to master the Chinese language, to examine the primary sources,” said Wu Hung, the Harrie H. Vanderstappen Distinguished Service Professor in Art History at the University of Chicago.

Before Vanderstappen, and his generation of pioneers, the study of Chinese art in the West was limited to aesthetics and style, “Harrie was one of the first to look beyond that.” Wu Hung regards Vanderstappen’s 1957 dissertation on the art of the Ming period, and the problems of a painting academy, as an important breakthrough. “He was the first Western art historian to look at the significance of institutions, and the patronage system, that influenced Chinese art.”

A faculty member at the University of Chicago for more than thirty years,  Vanderstappen compiled the world’s first comprehensive bibliography of Western writing on the art of China, a vital research tool for scholars. He was also one of the driving forces behind the creation of the David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art’s East Asian collection.

In addition to his scholarship, Vanderstappen was renowned for his teaching.

“I believe that Father Harrie’s scholarly importance is best measured, not in the number of books, but in the influence had on generations of art historians,” said Hans Thomsen, Assistant Professor in Art History.  His former students are teaching at more than 20 universities, and several are among the country’s most prominent East Asian art historians. “He had a tremendous presence in the classroom and excelled in making people observe art with an intensity that bordered on a spiritual experience,” Thomsen said. 

Born in the Netherlands in 1921, Vanderstappen was the second of eleven children.  He attended Roman Catholic seminaries in the Netherlands and Germany both before and during World War II. At one point during the war, he narrowly escaped capture by the Nazis, hiding with his seminary classmates in a windowless basement for more than 100 days.

In 1945, he was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in the Society of the Divine Word, a worldwide missionary order headquartered in Rome.  Two years later, after being assigned to missionary work in Beijing, China, the art department of Fu Jen Catholic University needed someone to teach art.  Vanderstappen obliged. “What I had in mind was missionary work,” he said, years later of this experience. “Instead I was converted — to art.”

Vanderstappen was based in China for less than three years.  In 1949, the Chinese communist government expelled him, along with other foreign missionaries.  After leaving China, he came to the University to pursue his growing interest in East Asian art. He received an MA in Art History in 1951 and a Ph.D. in 1955. After teaching in Frankfurt, Germany and Nagoya, Japan, Vanderstappen was offered a position at the University.

In 1959, he became the first ordained Catholic priest to hold a faculty position at Chicago. A priest holding such a position at a secular University was highly unusual.  The order made a special dispensation for the scholar.  Of this arrangement, Vanderstappen explained to a reporter in 2001, “Cardinal Stritch said the deal was that I could do it as long as I never talked about the problems of the church to reporters.”

Throughout his career at Chicago, Vanderstappen was not attached to a parish, but continued to perform his priestly duties, he often celebrated mass at St. Anselm, a Society of Divine Word church in Chicago.  Early in his career, he wore the traditional vestments — Roman Catholic collar, black suit, and shoes — but he eventually abandoned them. 

For an art historian, Vanderstappen’s interests were unusually broad.  “He taught classes in not only Chinese art history, Chinese painting, but also in Japanese art, East Asian sculpture, the art of Buddhism,” said Katherine Tsiang Mino, a former student of Vanderstappen’s, who is now Associate Director for Center for the Art of East Asia.  “He was able to guide dissertations on the art of both China and Japan, which is something that is rarely seen today,” said Thomsen.

For many years, during his tenure at Chicago, Vanderstappen was the editor of Monumenta Serica, a journal established by his order to disseminate the results of research on East Asian culture.

In 1968, Vanderstappen began one of his most significant projects. With the aid of a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, he revived the effort of the Chinese scholar, T.L. Yuan, to catalogue every single piece of Western writing on the art of China. The culmination of this exhaustive project, the page, “T.L. Yuan Bibliography of Chinese Art and Architecture,” was published in 1975.

Vanderstappen was also a connoisseur and collector of Chinese and Japanese art. 

In the late '60s, during the initial planning of the University's David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, Vanderstappen lobbied for the inclusion of what he termed a "solid study collection" of traditional East Asian art.  "He was one of the guiding forces for a permanent collection of traditional scroll paintings of quality and scholarly interest," said Richard Born, the museum's Senior Curator.  "Not only did he offer invaluable advice, but also he helped raise the funds for the eventual purchase the museum's core holdings of Chinese and Japanese scroll paintings when it opened in 1974."  Moreover, over the years, Born said, he made gifts, always anonymously, of similar works from his own collection, with a final donation of a dozen Chinese and Japanese paintings in December 2005.  "He was an inspiring mentor, a great connoisseur, and a most generous collector," said Born.

Vanderstappen is perhaps best remembered at the University for his teaching.  He was the recipient of the College Art Association of America’s Distinguished Teaching of Art History Award in 1985.  In 1987, he received the University’s Burlington Northern Distinguished Teaching Award. In 1996, a professorship in Chinese art history was named in his honor.  The Harrie Vanderstappen Distinguished Service professorship was created by a gift from one of Vanderstappen’s former students, Roger E. Covey.  

After his retirement from the University in 1991, Vanderstappen,  who eventually moved to the Divine Word Residence in Techny, Illinois,  continued to study East Asian art.  “He came to campus a few weeks ago, researching for a book,” recalled Thomsen. “He was literally working to the end.”

He is survived by his siblings: Antoon, Albert, Wilhelm, John, Chef, Lieske Van De Ven,  and Joseph.  He was preceded in death by three brothers Martin, Andre and Piet.   A mass was celebrated on Monday, January 29 at the Society of Divine Word Chapel in Techny.  A public memorial service is being held on campus at a later date.

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Last modified at 11:09 AM CST on Monday, July 23, 2007

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