Feb. 15, 2007
Vol. 26 No. 10

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    Vanderstappen, 86, revised how Western scholars studied Chinese art

    The Rev. Henricus “Harrie” Vanderstappen, Professor Emeritus in Art, East Asian Languages & Civilizations and the College, who was a pioneering scholar of Chinese art and one of the first Catholic priests to hold a professorship at a secular university, died Thursday, Jan. 25. 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 era 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 and the College.

    “Harrie was one of the first to look beyond that,” said Wu, who 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 for more than 30 years, he 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 amount of influence he 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 11 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 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 and other foreign missionaries. He then came to the University, where he received his A.M. 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.

    For an art historian, Vanderstappen’s interests were unusually broad. “He taught classes in not only Chinese art history, Chinese painting, but also Japanese art, East Asian sculpture, the art of Buddhism,” said Katherine Tsiang Mino, a former student of Vanderstappen’s and current Associate Director for the 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,” added Thomsen.

    In 1968, Vanderstappen began one of his most significant projects. With a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, he revived Chinese scholar T.L. Yuan’s effort to catalogue every single piece of Western writing on the art of China. The culmination of this exhaustive project, “T.L. Yuan Bibliography of Chinese Art and Architecture,” was published in 1975.

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

    In the late 1960s, during the initial planning of the Smart Museum of Art, he 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, Senior Curator at the Smart Museum of Art. “Not only did he offer invaluable advice, but he also helped raise the funds for the eventual purchase the museum’s core holdings of Chinese and Japanese scroll paintings when it opened in 1974.”

    In 1996, a distinguished service professorship in Chinese art history was named in his honor. Vanderstappen’s former student, Roger Covey, donated the gift to create this faculty chair.

    After his retirement from the University in 1991, Vanderstappen, who eventually moved to the Divine Word Residence in Techny, Ill., 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. Vanderstappen’s three brothers Martin, Andre and Piet, preceded him in death.

    A public memorial service will be held on campus at a later date.