Robert L. Herbert, 91, Dies; Saw Impressionism With a Fresh Eye

Robert L. Herbert, a pioneering scholar of 19th-century art whose 1988 history of Impressionism, viewed through a social lens, delivered a robust transfusion to the study of that period, died on Dec. 17 in Northampton, Mass. He was 91.

His wife, Eugenia W. Herbert, said the cause was a stroke.

In a teaching career that spanned six decades, 34 years of which were spent in the Yale art history department, Professor Herbert was a prolific writer, editor and curator. His books include studies of paintings by David, Seurat, Monet and Renoir. At the same time, he advised generations of undergraduate and graduate students, many of whom, like Paul Hayes Tucker and Molly Nesbit, became outstanding scholars themselves.

Another one, Kenneth E. Silver, now a professor of art history at New York University and a 20th-century specialist, described Professor Herbert in an interview as “a moral figure for all of us, but not with a capital ‘M.’”

He “wasn’t oppressive,” Professor Silver added. “He didn’t insist you follow his mode.”

When Professor Herbert began delving into Impressionism, the field was threatened by a kind of anemic gentility, arid formalism and French literary theory. His method, by contrast, was to locate works of art within a matrix of social and biographic details, while being careful not to reduce them to the politics of their day, or of ours.

Traditional style analysis and novel practices like deconstruction, in his opinion, placed art “above the history of mundane events,” and nothing excited him more than uncovering mundane facts in order to illuminate, say, a painting like Seurat’s “Bathers at Asnières,” one that others regarded as exhaustively inspected and patly understood.

Like his Yale colleague Vincent Scully, Professor Herbert did not fit the mold of an Ivy League art historian. Neither man had a patrician pedigree. Professor Herbert’s family background was in rural and proletariat New England, a heritage he was proud of. (While teaching at Yale he lived on four acres of farmland outside New Haven amid old apple orchards and baby goats.)

His father, John Newman Herbert, worked for the railroad, operating a drawbridge on the line between Boston and New York for many years. His mother, Rosalia (Harr) Herbert, was nicknamed “the General” and oversaw a large household; of her eight children, Robert, born on April 21, 1929, in Worcester, Mass., was next to last.

He attended a two-room primary school in Mystic, Conn., then earned a scholarship to Wesleyan University. Upon graduation in 1951, he spent a year in Paris on a Fulbright fellowship. It was there he fell in love with French art, and with Eugenia Randall Warren. She became Eugenia Herbert in 1953. They were married for 67 years.

Both went to Yale for graduate school. He received a master’s degree in 1954 and finished his Ph.D. in 1957 with a dissertation on the drawings of Seurat, an artist about whom he became an authority. (He helped organize the 1991 retrospective on the centennial of Seurat’s death, at the Grand Palais in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the exhibition “Seurat and the Making of La Grande Jatte” for the Art Institute of Chicago in 2004.)

Professor Herbert’s first major success was the traveling exhibition “Barbizon Revisited” in 1962. In its catalog, he argued that the French landscape painters of the Romantic period, most notably Jean-Francois Millet, were heroic radicals for depicting the harsh realities of rural life. In 1964, he introduced and edited a collection of writings by John Ruskin, another critical historian who viewed art from a social perspective.

It took Professor Herbert 20 years to complete his magnum opus, “Impressionism: Art, Leisure, and Parisian Society,” published by Yale University Press in 1988. The book presents a thematic account of the urbanization and political turmoil convulsing French society from the early 1860s to the mid-1880s and a study of French artists’ response to these changes — in business, entertainment, pleasure. A fluid narrative, it interweaves sociology of class and gender relationships with close readings of canonical paintings.

As Professor Herbert wrote in his preface, he “started with the pictures of the Impressionists and then tried to answer the questions posed by the kinds of subjects that they preferred and the way they painted them.”

“Impressionism” was quickly hailed as a landmark by other art historians. Robert Rosenblum of New York University declared that it “supersedes all other studies in the field” and that Professor Herbert “rejuvenates even the most famous paintings by seeing them in a dense and flexible context touching on everything from the hierarchy of theater boxes to the role of beer-hall waitresses.”

The book vaulted him into the ranks of exalted socially minded art historians like T.J. Clark and Linda Nochlin.

Professor Herbert retired from Yale in 1990 to join his wife at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, where she was a professor of history. (Among her works is the celebrated cross-disciplinary study “Red Gold of Africa: Copper in Precolonial History and Culture.”) He was named the Andrew W. Mellon professor of humanities there. They both retired in 1997.

Among his numerous honors were a Guggenheim fellowship in 1970-71 and the Distinguished Service Award from the College Art Association in 2008. Granted the Legion of Honor in 1991 by the French government, he regarded the wearing of its decoration as pretentious and, according to his wife, never wore it.

In addition to her, he is survived by three children, Tim, Rosemary and Catherine Herbert, and six grandchildren. He died in a hospital in Northampton.

After retirement, Professor Herbert immersed himself in western Massachusetts history. Researching the life of Orra White Hitchcock (1796-1863), one of America’s early female artists, he helped organize an exhibition of her scientific illustrations and watercolors in 2011 for Amherst College.

Walks and biking trips around the area led him to delve into the history of landscape design at Mount Holyoke. He dug into college archives, examined photographs and interviewed elderly residents to learn when certain trees were planted, and why certain works of architecture were built and had disappeared on the campus.

His enthusiasm about these matters was matched by a desire to tell others how to look at them. He curated an exhibition on his findings in 2016 at the college art museum. Of the larches in the campus’s Prospect Park, he told a reporter for The Amherst Bulletin, “They turn golden yellow in late October, and when they get to be about 75 years old, they develop a wonderful bark that looks like oval shingles hung one above the other.”

And of the light reflected from Lower Lake, he said: “You can see the blue reflections between the trees as you walk up the hillside from the lake. The blue pops up between the tree trunks. This will become your favorite blue, as it is mine.”

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