Remembering Seymour Slive

June 24, 2014
Seymour Slive, n.d. Photo: Courtesy Harvard Art Museums Archives.

It’s a tremendous pleasure to help young people acquire knowledge of humankind’s visual heritage. We don’t want the students who are going to be lawyers, doctors, and scientists to leave here visually illiterate. How do you read a picture? How do you tell whether a building is a good or bad one? That’s a wonderful thing to teach people. There are no hard and fast rules to follow, but helping them discover that these problems exist makes them start thinking about them.

–Seymour Slive, 1920–2014


Shortly before Seymour Slive passed away this month, Harvard University presented him with an honorary degree to recognize his leadership in the arts. The Harvard Art Museums are grateful for his exemplary leadership as the director of the Fogg Museum from 1975 to 1982. Slive led a period of historic growth at the museum and took enormous pride in the collections as well as the exhibitions that took place under his watch.

Slive, a longtime member of Harvard’s faculty, was an internationally renowned Rembrandt scholar and expert on 17th-century Dutch art. In addition to directing the museum and teaching courses at the university, he organized and wrote the catalogue for a comprehensive retrospective of the work of the great 17th-century Dutch artist Jacob van Ruisdael. The exhibition, which also traveled to the Mauritshuis in The Hague, was a huge success. William W. Robinson, the Maida and George Abrams Curator of Drawings, described it as “far and away the most popular show ever presented at the Fogg Museum. . . . It opened in the middle of January. Despite the cold, on weekends the line snaked down the Fogg’s main staircase, out the Quincy Street entrance, and down the block to Broadway.”

“Although he was at heart a scholar and an academic, he never let book learning or footnotes get in the way of appreciating an image purely as a visual road into the human mind and soul,” said Marjorie Cohn, the Carl A. Weyerhaeuser Curator of Prints, Emerita. His appreciation for humanity was also exemplified in his relationship with the Fogg’s staff. “People—their joys and sorrows, capacities and deficiencies—always interested him. He could be sympathetic, and he could also be tough when necessary,” Cohn recalled. “He did whatever he did for the right reasons, aesthetically and institutionally in the case of the museum, and morally and humanely in the case of the staff.”

Slive’s profound contributions to the Harvard Art Museums and to countless students, scholars, and visitors will long be remembered. He was a true leader who will be missed.