Jan. 8, 2004
Vol. 23 No. 7

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    Francis Dowley, expert on art of early modern France

    Francis Dowley, Professor Emeritus in Art History, died Friday, Dec. 5, of natural causes at the University Hospital. He was 87. A renowned expert on the art of early modern France 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 through close reading and intimate knowledge of the artwork.

    Mary Harvey, Associate Provost, who earned a Ph.D. under Dowley, said that “his command of the oeuvres of 17th- and 18th-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,” Harvey said.

    Barbara Stafford, the William B. Ogden Distinguished Service Professor in 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 a crucial series of 18th-century sculptures, “nobody was looking at sculpture, it was all painting, and he really opened up the field,” said Stafford. 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 had a rather monkish existence and lived for many years in the 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 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 on Dec. 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 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 to 1947, Dowley held a fellowship at the Institute of Fine Arts in New York, and from 1947 to 1949, he researched 18th-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.”

    Despite Dowley’s brilliance, Harvey remembers a man who was down-to-earth and approachable. “His 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.”