S. Lane Faison Jr., 98, Dies; Art Historian and Professor

Yesterday’s New York Times brought news of the recent death of S. Lane Faison Jr., a Professor at Williams College and a famed art historian.

Though I never met him, I know that among the thousands of his students those who know of his death are mourning it as I write this.

Here are some excerpts, as well as some thoughts on the life he lived and the lessons he taught:

S. Lane Faison Jr., an art historian who cut his teeth cataloging Hitler’s collection of plundered paintings, then, as a Williams College professor, inspired students who went on to head many of America’s leading art institutions, died on Saturday at his home in Williamstown, Mass. He was 98.

Morton Owen Schapiro, the president of Williams, who announced the death, said his “legacy will forever be spread far and wide through the countless students he turned on to art.”

Mr. Faison’s achievement was taking young men at what was then an all-male school and diverting them from careers as doctors and bank executives by turning them into art history majors. A typical disciple was Glenn D. Lowry, a pre-med student in the early 1970’s whose main interest was skiing but who tagged along on an impromptu tour Mr. Faison happened to give of Williams’s highly respected art museum.

“Off we galloped,” Mr. Lowry said. “We spent hours there, and I was transformed.”

Mr. Lowry is now director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Others who studied with Mr. Faison and his renowned colleagues Whitney S. Stoddard and William H. Pierson include Earl A. Powell III, director of the National Gallery of Art, Thomas Krens, director of the Guggenheim Foundation, and Kirk T. Varnedoe, chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Modern until his death in 2003.

Morton Owen Schapiro, the president of Williams, who announced the death, said his “legacy will forever be spread far and wide through the countless students he turned on to art.”

Mr. Faison’s achievement was taking young men at what was then an all-male school and diverting them from careers as doctors and bank executives by turning them into art history majors. A typical disciple was Glenn D. Lowry, a pre-med student in the early 1970’s whose main interest was skiing but who tagged along on an impromptu tour Mr. Faison happened to give of Williams’s highly respected art museum.

“Off we galloped,” Mr. Lowry said. “We spent hours there, and I was transformed.”

Mr. Lowry is now director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Others who studied with Mr. Faison and his renowned colleagues Whitney S. Stoddard and William H. Pierson include Earl A. Powell III, director of the National Gallery of Art, Thomas Krens, director of the Guggenheim Foundation, and Kirk T. Varnedoe, chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Modern until his death in 2003.

I expect that few if any of his students who went on to major in art history entered Williams with that as their intended major. They changed their major solely because of him.

We all have had — or I least hope we all have had — the good fortune to have as one of our teachers someone who changed and shaped the course of our lives. I know I have. Here are some personal examples.

Mrs. Campbell, my algebra teacher in the 8th grade. From the very first day she inspired us to work hard because she promised that if we did so we would be able to do some something magical. She was right. After a few months she handed out sheets of graph paper and we entered the world defined by the x- and y-axes, a world she had made exciting.

Mr. Goodsell Slocum, my math teacher the last two years of high-school, and probably the reason I was admitted to Caltech. Two of his students from the previous year’s class were accepted, and I was told by Dean Jones, the Caltech director of admissions who came to our high school to interview me, that Mr. Slocum had spoken highly of me.

Professor Rochus Vogt, my section leader for freshman physics at Caltech, in 1962-1963. It was Prof. Vogt’s first year at Caltech, and on he volunteered to be a section leader for freshman physics, Feynam’s physics. I didn’t do very well in the course. For example, I think I got a 4 on the first mid-term, out of a possible 60 points; the class high was 15. Prof. Vogt took me under his wing during the second quarter and encouraged me to study harder, and I improved my grade significantly in the third quarter. I might well have dropped out of Caltech — as did the three other students from Albuquerque who were admitted the previous year and the year I was admitted — but for his encouragement.

Feynman first gave the class in 61-62, but he did only the first two quarters of lectures. I had the good fortune to have him in the second year in the last quarter, for quantum mechanics. Feynman had the finest mind I’ve ever known. Whenever he lectured everyone at Caltech came — student, faculty, secretaries, and so forth.

The high point of that quarter was one of the lectures on quantum mechanics. When I left that lecture at noon I understood quantum mechanics. However, as I headed down the Olive Walk toward the faculty club where I worked as a waiter, the vast edifice started to crumble. A neutrino here, a positron there, and by the time I arrived at the club I had lost it all.

I was also present for Feynman’s Lost Lecture: The Motion of the Planets Around the Sun. I have a copy. The frontpiece is a photo of him standing at the board; he was also a very handsome man and wrote very precisely on the blackboard.

I searched for Prof. Vogt on the internet and found an article about Feynman, Physics World poll names Richard Feynman one of 10 greatest physicists of all time. Feynman was listed seventh:

“I would have ranked him a bit higher,” said Rochus Vogt, a Caltech physics professor, former provost, and former division chair in Physics, Mathematics, and Astronomy. “He was certainly the greatest physicist of my age.

“He was not only a top-notch physicist, but he was an artist, a Renaissance type of person,” Vogt said. “He had certain insights and perceptions in physics that I have no word to describe other than ‘artistic.'”

Prof. Faison’s obituary continues:

Part of Mr. Faison’s winning pitch was persuading students that art history was not incompatible with masculinity by attending their athletic contests and fraternity parties. A larger part was nudging them to see art differently, sometimes by holding a work upside down or sideways to judge whether the composition hung together. He gave innovative assignments like comparing the book “Tom Jones” with a Hogarth painting.

Samson Lane Faison Jr. was born in Washington on Nov. 16, 1907. His father was an Army general and he grew up in many places. He fell in love with art when a high school teacher took him to see the Chartres Cathedral. “I haven’t been the same since,” he often said.

Seeing mention of “Tom Jones” and “I haven’t been the same since” reminded me of several instances where a single moment, or only a few moments, changed my view of art.

For example, I spent a week in New York City in March, 1964. During that week I saw the following movies: the fore-mentioned Tom Jones, Dr. Strangelove, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, The Great Dictator, and one that became one of my all-time personal favorites, Jules and Jim.

I saw my first great painting the same week, on my first visit to the Frick Museum. I turned left and as I approached a passage on my right I caught my first glimpse of a Vermeer — he is still my favorite painter. I was so taken by the Frick that I must have gone back at least three other times in that week.

My wife and I were at the Frick this past Sunday to see an exhibit of masterworks on loan from the Cleveland Museum of Art. We went early to avoid long lines, and were among the first to enter. While most people headed right for the exhibit, I instead went to the Great Room. Except for a guard or two, I had the room to myself for a few minutes; Frick had it for a lifetime. It’s one of the geat rooms in the world, a room with Vermeer, two magnificent J.M.W. Turner’s, Rembrandt, El Greco, Velasquez, and more.

My lifelong interest in classical music dates to one morning in the 7th or 8th grade just after 7AM in the morning. I heard a performance of Ravel’s Bolero on the radio. It was enough to pique my interest. By that Christmas Holiday I was taking home recordings from the local library. My wife and I were for many years members of the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society.

My entire view of sculpture changed within two seconds, three years ago, when I first saw Michelangelo’s David.

I could relate other such moments, but I’ll close now too give you time to think of your own such moments.

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