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In Memoriam
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Craig Stephen Harbison (1944–2018)

Posted By RSA, Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Craig Stephen Harbison, age seventy-four, died unexpectedly of cardiac arrest on 17 May 2018 in his home in Hadley, Massachusetts. A prominent scholar of Northern Renaissance art, Craig taught art history for more than thirty years, primarily at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Born in Baltimore, Maryland, on 19 April 1944, Craig grew up in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He attended Oberlin College, where he majored in art history and studied under Wolfgang Stechow. There he met his wife of thirty-seven years, Sherrill Rood, whom he married after graduation in 1966.

Craig went on to pursue a PhD at Princeton, becoming one of Erwin Panofsky’s last students. He received his degree in 1972, two years after taking his first teaching job at the University of California, Davis. From 1972 to 1974 he taught at Oberlin College, his alma mater. He began his career at the University of Massachusetts immediately thereafter.

Craig authored two widely read and admired books on Northern Renaissance art: Jan van Eyck: The Play of Realism (1991, paperback 1995) and The Mirror of the Artist: Northern Renaissance Art in Its Historical Context (1995), the latter published in six languages. He wrote many articles reflecting a wide range of interests, including Italian Renaissance art, for compendia and journals such as Art Bulletin, Art History, Art Quarterly, Burlington Magazine, Oud-Holland, Renaissance Quarterly, Simiolus, and Word and Image. He also contributed to several BBC television programs on Northern Renaissance art.

In some ways, Craig eschewed the conventions of scholarly art history; he believed in an imaginative, personal response to works of art. In his review of Craig’s book on Van Eyck (Art Bulletin 75.1 (1993): 175–76), Christopher S. Wood wrote, “These are imaginative readings, and they should not be subjected to ordinary scholarly ordeals of verification. They are blueprints for a rejuvenated criticism of older art.” In particular Wood noted: “Van Eyck’s art, we are told, is ambivalent, shifting, experimental, ironic, ludic, self-divided; at once materialistic and spiritual, pretentious and skeptical, audacious and anxious. So were 15th-century people. (So is Harbison’s book, for that matter).” Anyone who knew him would recognize this as a pretty good description of Craig himself (except that he was anything but pretentious). As Craig’s son Colin noted at his father’s memorial service, the word to best sum up Craig’s character was “complicated.”

Craig’s remarkable teaching and mentoring skills benefited undergraduate and graduate students, as well as junior faculty, at the University of Massachusetts and elsewhere. Awarded his university’s College of Humanities and Fine Arts Outstanding Teaching Award in 1998, Craig served on more than fifty MA and MFA committees, chairing more than fifteen. He served twice as director of his department’s graduate program, and three times as department chair. In positions of academic leadership, he always offered a clear and ambitious vision for the future of art history within the broader humanities.

After his retirement, Craig came out as a gay man and spent the next fifteen years growing into himself. He had a lifelong love for live and recorded opera. He was a chef, an artist, and photographer, and an avid reader. He was a generous and thoughtful friend, and unconditionally loving father and proud grandfather.

Craig is survived by his brother Robert Harbison of London, England; his former wife, Sherrill Rood Harbison; his two children, Hanne Harbison of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Colin Harbison of Fairfax, Virginia; and his three grandsons, Amon Harbison Koopman and Aidan and Nathan Harbison.

Monika Schmitter
University of Massachusetts Amherst

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