James Cahill, scholar of Chinese art; at 87

NEW YORK — James Cahill — one of the foremost authorities on Chinese art, whose interpretations of Chinese painting for the West influenced generations of scholars — died Friday at his home in Berkeley, Calif. He was 87.

The cause was complications of prostate cancer, said his daughter, Sarah.

Dr. Cahill, who taught at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1965 until his retirement in 1994, was among a group of eminent art historians who, from the late 1950s to the 1970s, researched and cataloged Chinese painting. At the time, Western interest in Chinese art was far less than it is today, said Patricia Berger, professor of Chinese art at Berkeley and one of his former students.


Working with Swedish scholar Osvald Siren and later on his own, Dr. Cahill recorded and photographed Chinese masterworks, building a canon on which to understand the development of Chinese painting over the centuries, Berger said.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

In his analysis of paintings, Dr. Cahill typically tried to learn as much as possible about the character of an artist from the brushwork. This formal analysis led to an interest in authenticity, a major theme in the study of Chinese art; in China, copying revered works is a tradition, and some copies are regarded as masterpieces in their own right.

Dr. Cahill set off an explosive debate about authenticity in 1999 when he said a painting that had become an important part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Chinese collection was a fake.

The work, a scroll titled “Riverbank,” was said to be by Dong Yuan, a 10th-century painter. Dr. Cahill said it was probably the work of Zhang Daqian, a 20th-century Chinese artist, collector, and master forger whose own work sells for millions of dollars.

Dr. Cahill presented his conclusions during an international symposium at the Met, citing evidence based on the brushwork and seals used in the painting. Maxwell K. Hearn of the Met’s Asian department defended the authenticity of the work, and it remains on display at the museum, attributed to Dong Yuan, although Dr. Cahill remained convinced that it is by Zhang.


“I don’t think it will ever be finally resolved,” said Julia White, senior curator for Asian art at the Berkeley Art Museum and another student of Dr. Cahill’s.

In an e-mail Tuesday, Hearn said that few scholars now believe “Riverbank” to be a modern forgery. But he praised Dr. Cahill, whom he called “a mentor to us all,” for his healthy skepticism.

Dr. Cahill’s son Nick said that his father reveled in such debates, “not for the controversy, but for the argument, the dialogue, for the engagement in the field.”

James Francis Cahill was born in Fort Bragg, Calif. Originally a linguist, he worked as a US Army translator in Japan in 1946 and in Korea, where he became interested in collecting paintings, from 1946 to 1948. He received his bachelor’s degree in Oriental languages in 1950 from the University of California, Berkeley, and his master’s and doctorate in art history from the University of Michigan.