Seymour Slive, 93; Harvard expert on Dutch painters
Seymour Slive, Gleason professor of fine arts emeritus at Harvard and one of the world’s leading authorities on 17th-century Dutch painting, died Saturday at his Cambridge home. He was 93. The cause of death was cancer, said his daughter Sarah Slive Davila.
Leaving his sickbed last month, Dr. Slive received an honorary degree at Harvard’s commencement. “He took such great satisfaction being next to Aretha Franklin,” Davila said in a phone interview.
Dr. Slive was director of Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum from 1975 to 1982, having been named acting director in 1974. He was instrumental in creation of Harvard’s Arthur M. Sackler Museum of Art. When the university canceled the project at one point for financial reasons, Dr. Slive raised $3 million in the space of three weeks to keep it going.
Cutting a large figure in both the art world and at Harvard, Dr. Slive was equally at home at teaching, scholarship, administration, and fund-raising, often simultaneously. “He was the master of multitasking before anybody had ever heard the word,” William W. Robinson said by phone. Robinson, a former student of Dr. Slive’s, is Maida and George Abrams curator of drawings at Harvard.
“At one point in the early ’80s, Seymour was director of the Fogg, raising money to build the Sackler, teaching his usual load of courses, and organized the most successful exhibition ever shown at Harvard, the [Jacob] van Ruisdael show, and all at the same time.”
Dr. Slive published more than a dozen books. The two most notable were his catalogue raisonnés, a listing of complete works, for the Dutch painters van Ruisdael and Frans Hals. Another former student of Dr. Slive’s, Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., said, “You don’t have to feel shy about calling him the world’s leading authority on those two. He was.” Wheelock is curator of the northern European art collection at the National Gallery of Art.
There was nothing impersonal about Dr. Slive’s scholarship. He once wrote, “Apparently Hals only felt inspired to paint when he was confronted by a fellow human being.” Something similar could be said about Dr. Slive’s relationship to art history.
“I have known no one more infectiously enthusiastic about looking at art works than Seymour,” Ivan Gaskell, professor of cultural history and museum studies at the Bard Graduate Center, wrote in an e-mail.
“As anyone knows who heard him lecture, invariably ex tempore, he could communicate that joy in a mellifluously resonant voice that would have been many an actor’s dream to possess. His address to his audience — ‘Peeeople...!’ — was quite unique, and his rhetoric capable of persuading his listeners at times, at least temporarily, against their better judgment. Seymour was mightily secure in his own powers of judgment, and his connoisseurial work on Hals and van Ruisdael was as decisive as it was thorough.”
Wheelock echoed that view of Dr. Slive as performer: “He was kind of like a carnival barker. He’d just get up there, waving his hands, marching across the stage, not using the podium. The passion he exuded was just infectious, that willingness to look everywhere and at everything. He was this great expert in his field, but there was that same delight in areas that were non-Dutch.”
A favorite saying of Dr. Slive’s was “only donkeys have fields.”
Pre-Columbian art first attracted her father to art history, Davila said.
“The great joy of art history, as I see it, is that everything is pertinent to it,” Dr. Slive said in a 1982 New York Times interview. “And there is room in it for everyone. I have been working . . . recently with dendrologists, oceanographers, and meteorologists. The wonderful thing about a great university is that all those people are on your doorstep, and so are the works of art.”
A man of strong opinions, Dr. Slive could express them vigorously. In 1994, he was asked at a dinner party about the Museum of Fine Arts’ search for a new director. He admitted to some incredulity at what he considered the unrealistic expectations of the search committee. A fellow guest wondered what the museum might want in a director. “What do they want?” Dr. Slive replied. “What do they want? I’ll tell you what they want. They want Jesus Christ — with a French wife!” The unavailability of the son of God, irrespective of marital status, cleared the way for the museum to hire Malcolm Rogers.
Dr. Slive advocated connoisseurship in art history, the exacting study of individual works in strictly aesthetic terms, rather than iconography, the study of the symbols they contain, and meanings those symbols offer. Although connoisseurship is widely seen as a traditional and elitist approach to art, Dr. Slive was anything but traditional and elitist as an administrator.
“He was very proud of the Fogg being a teaching institution,” recalled Davila, who lives in Cambridge. “He really believed in public access: that these beautiful works be meaningful and understandable to all. He loved seeing groups of children in the museum. He delighted in answering question like ‘How does art get here?’ ‘Well, it comes in a truck.’ ”
When Harvard decided to start charging an admission fee for its art museums, Dr. Slive was strongly opposed. As director emeritus, he was unable to stop the plan. He did exact a concession from the university. Any holder of a Cambridge Public Library card would receive free admission.
Explaining his view of museums, he told the New York Times in 1982, “’It isn’t so important that [museumgoers] should come in to see what they already like. The really valuable thing is that they get to see work of great quality that they don’t expect to like. When they drop by the Fogg in an everyday way and come to terms with the Simone Martini crucifixion, the Rubens oil sketch, or the Poussin ‘Birth of Bacchus,’ let alone the ancient Chinese ritual vessels or the 17 terra-cotta sketches by Bernini, they’ve crossed a frontier.”
Seymour Slive was born in Chicago. His parents were Russian immigrants: Daniel Slive, a tailor, and Sophie (Rapoport) Slive, a factory worker. Davila said Dr. Slive credited an older brother with interesting him in art and culture. That interest initially took the form of making art: He painted and sculpted.
After graduating from the University of Chicago in 1943, Dr. Slive served in the Naval Reserve in the South Pacific, rising to the rank of lieutenant. He retained a love of the sea for the rest of his life. Dr. Slive owned a summer home in Maine, on South Deer Isle, and sailed a dinghy. He refused to acquire a larger vessel. The reasons were economic rather than nautical. Davila recalled her father’s explanation: “Owning a yacht would be like standing in the shower and tearing up thousand-dollar bills.”
Taking advantage of the GI Bill, Dr. Slive returned to the University of Chicago for a doctorate in art history. His dissertation became his first book, “Rembrandt and His Critics, 1630-1730” (1953).
Dr. Slive taught at Oberlin and Pomona colleges before coming to Harvard, in 1954. He was later an exchange professor at the University of Leningrad and Slade professor of fine arts at Oxford University. Dr. Slive also served on the board of directors at New York’s Guggenheim Museum of Art and on the advisory committee of the J. Paul Getty Museum, in Los Angeles.
Last month, he finished editing the proofs of his final book, on Hals.
In addition to his daughter Sarah, Dr. Slive leaves his wife, Zoya (Sandomirsky). Later this month would have been their 68th anniversary. He also leaves another daughter, Katherine of Los Angeles; a son, Alexander of Cambridge; and five grandchildren.
Plans for a fall memorial at Harvard are incomplete.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version incorrectly referred to Dr Slive’s time at Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum. He was director of Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum from 1975 to 1982, having been named acting director in 1974.