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Stuart Cary Welch Jr.: In Memoriam

posted by CAA — Sep 08, 2008

Stuart Cary Welch Jr., curator emeritus of Islamic and later Indian art at the Harvard Art Museum and former special consultant in charge in the Department of Islamic Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, died on August 13, 2008, while traveling in Hokkaido, Japan. He was 80 and a resident of New Hampshire.

Welch, a legendary scholar, collector, and connoisseur, studied and taught at Harvard University, where he was instrumental in transforming the Department of Islamic Art, establishing a curriculum of study of the arts of the Middle East and South Asia, and developing one of the finest collections of Islamic and later Indian art in this country. His lifelong association with Harvard culminated in his role over the past two decades as one of the most generous donors to the Harvard Art Museum.

Welch developed an appreciation of art early in his childhood. Aside from being a collector of drawings at a very young age, Welch himself was an accomplished draftsman, a skill that carried through to his enrollment at Harvard and beyond. He was a graduate of the St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, in 1946. That same year he began his undergraduate studies in fine arts at Harvard, where he continued his graduate work in Classical art from 1952 to 1954. During that time, Welch intensified his study and collecting of Islamic and Indian art. He also published some of his more entertaining and lighthearted drawings in Harvard’s literary and humor magazines, including his series of Popular Professions Illustrated that appeared in the Harvard Lampoon and the Harvard Advocate.

While Welch concentrated in the study of fine arts at Harvard, at the time there were no classes or formal instruction available in the subject of Islamic or Indian art. Ever resourceful, Welch took the initiative to devise his own “course of study” by traveling extensively throughout the Middle East and South Asia to absorb regional traditions and culture and to witness firsthand the lands that captivated him, his interest driven by the drawings that he had already begun to acquire. At the same time, Eric Schroeder, then honorary keeper of Islamic Art at the Fogg Museum, became his mentor at Harvard.

In 1956, Schroeder invited Welch to become honorary assistant keeper of Islamic Art at the Fogg, and thus began an era that saw Welch use his infinite enthusiasm to transform the fledgling Department of Islamic Art. At the same time, as part of the vanguard of Islamic art scholars at Harvard, he spearheaded the effort to establish one of the first American university curriculums in the study of the arts of the Islamic world. In 1960, he taught the first class at Harvard in Near Eastern Art. An instructor for twenty-five years at Harvard, Welch arranged for works of art to be made available for study by students and scholars. Welch was a teacher and mentor to many distinguished museum leaders and scholars, including Lentz; Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art; and Michael Brand, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. Over four decades at Harvard, Welch served as honorary keeper, curator (retiring in 1995), and finally curator emeritus. He worked brilliantly with such esteemed donors as John Goelet, Edwin Binney III, and John Kenneth Galbraith, and during his tenure he vastly enriched Harvard’s holdings of Islamic and Indian art.

Concurrent with his work at Harvard, Welch served as special consultant in charge in the Department of Islamic Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1979 to 1987. He was instrumental in making many important acquisitions that greatly enhanced the Metropolitan Museum’s collection and, in 1985, organized the groundbreaking exhibition India: Art and Culture, 1300–1900, a comprehensive presentation of over three hundred works including masterpieces of the sacred and court traditions that ranks among his greatest achievements as a curator.

Welch’s scholarship, particularly in the fields of Persian and Indian painting and drawing, served as the foundation for many important exhibitions and accompanying publications, including The Art of Mughal India, Paintings and Precious Objects (1964), the first important American exhibition devoted to Mughal art; Gods, Thrones, and Peacocks: Northern Indian Painting from Two Traditions, Fifteenth to Nineteenth Centuries (1965); Room for Wonder: Indian Painting during the British Period, 1760–1880 (1978); Wonders of the Age: Masterpieces of Early Safavid Painting, 1501–1576 (1979); Gods, Kings, and Tigers: The Art of Kotah (1997); and From Mind, Heart, and Hand: Persian, Turkish, and Indian Drawings from the Stuart Cary Welch Collection (2004), an exhibition of drawings from Welch’s landmark gift to Harvard in 1999 of over three hundred works.

Welch produced countless exhibitions over the forty years that he spent at Harvard, many of which may have been small in size, but which always tended toward the visual and poetic. His last exhibition is the first in a series entitled Perspectives that is part of the long-term exhibition Re-View at the Harvard Art Museum/Arthur M. Sackler Museum. The small installation, titled Tree of Life: Five Indian Variations on a Theme, includes just five works of art but is characteristic of Welch’s vision and approach. It opened in April 2008, just a few days after Welch’s eightieth birthday.

Considered his greatest scholarly achievement was the immense, two-volume study of The Houghton Shahnameh, coauthored with Martin B. Dickson of Princeton University, which focused on the great early Safavid dynasty copy of the Persian national epic executed for the Safavid ruler and patron of the arts Shah Tahmasp (r. 1524–1576). Welch’s insights fundamentally changed the way scholars thought about the development of early Safavid painting, demonstrating that it was, in fact, a brilliant synthesis of the earlier Timurid and Turkman styles of painting.

Welch’s numerous exhibitions, publications, public lectures, and years of teaching propelled the study and appreciation of Islamic and Indian art to new heights, educating and enlightening generations of students, scholars, and museum visitors.

Filed under: Obituaries