Seymour Slive, a former director of the Fogg Art Museum and fine arts professor emeritus, died on June 14, two weeks after receiving an honorary degree at Harvard’s 363rd commencement. He was 93.
Family, students, and colleagues remembered Slive as an energetic and passionate man who was engaged with art at Harvard in numerous roles.
William W. Robinson, curator of drawings for the Harvard Art Museums, emphasized Slive’s ability to do multiple jobs at one time.
“[He] invented multi-tasking before anybody heard the word,” Robinson said.
Before coming to Harvard, Slive hoped to be an artist, according to his eldest daughter Katya Slive.
“He always told a story that he had a mentor that wanted to take him to Paris and his mother nixed it,” Katya Slive said. “He always had a bit of a bohemian spirit.”
After fighting in World War II, Slive attended graduate school at the University of Chicago through the G.I. Bill. In the mid-1950s, he began teaching at Harvard.
Slive taught an introductory fine arts course, and, according to Katya Slive, he was voted most popular teacher multiple times.
“He was a passionate teacher,” Katya Slive said of her father. “His greatest joy was teaching kids who were going into science and law because he knew they were really bright and wanted to give them an insight into the humanities.”
Robinson echoed her sentiment.
“Especially as an undergraduate lecturer he knew how to keep it lively,” Robinson said. “He inspired a lot of undergrads and advised a lot of Ph.D. candidates who went on to propagate the field.”
Slive’s area of expertise was 17th century Dutch painting, and his scholarship includes definitive works on the Dutch painters Jacob Van Ruisdael and Frans Hals.
Bruce L. Edelstein, a former student of Slive’s, characterized two seminars he took with Slive as eye-opening experiences.
“To see Golden Age landscape painting through his eyes was to become attuned to everything that is important, innovative, and exceptional about the representation of the natural world by seventeenth-century Dutch artists,” Edelstein said.
Slive approached understanding art by focusing on the physical object rather than symbolism, practicing a method known in the field as connoisseurship.
“The real meat of his scholarship really took the object as his point of departure,” Robinson said. “He was the most engaging writer amongst living art historians.”
Edelstein added, “His critical eye made an indelible impression on me, pointing out changes in condition and obvious interventions by restorers…. I learned more about connoisseurship during the two courses that I took with Prof. Slive than in any others that I took as a graduate student.”
Aside from teaching and his research, Slive also spent many years as director of Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum, serving in that role from 1975 to 1982.
According to colleague James S. Ackerman, a former fine arts professor, Slive played an important role in bridging the gap between the museum and faculty.
Perhaps Slive’s biggest accomplishment in the museum world, Ackerman said, was his “more or less one-man campaign” in the early 1980s to build the Sackler Museum at Harvard.
The renovations underway at the Fogg Museum currently also include many features that Slive supported, including in-house conservation labs and study rooms, according to Robinson. The revamped Fogg, now in a complex that will house collections from Harvard’s three art museums, is slated to open this coming November.
Throughout Slive’s prolific professional career, those who knew him said that he remained an energetic and generous person.
“He was a very jovial person, he always greeted everyone with a smile and enthusiasm,” Ackerman said. “He had great respect for his colleagues.”
Edelstein recalled Slive as an attentive mentor with extraordinary humanity.
“He was warm and approachable, concerned about his students but also deeply interested in the world at large,” Edelstein said.
Katya Slive said that as a young girl, she thought that everyone loved their job, but when she grew older she realized her dad was unique, particularly in his love for his work.
“He wasn’t a snob—he had very rigorous standards but he was also accepting of all sorts of people,” Katya said. “Our household was always known for being warm.”
“He leaves a big deep hole,” she said.
—Staff writer Ivan B. K. Levingston can be reached at Ivan.Levingston@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @IvanLevingston.