About James Cahill

Short c.v. for James Cahill (as of February 2011)

James Cahill was born in Fort Bragg, California in 1926. He received his B.A. degree in Oriental Languages from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1950, and his M.A. (1952) and Ph.D. (1958) in Art History from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, working principally with Max Loehr. He studied with Shujiro Shimada at Kyoto University in 1954-55 on a Fulbright Scholarship, after holding a museum training fellowship at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and then in 1956 worked with Osvald Sirén in Stockholm.

On his return to the U.S. in 1956, he joined the staff of the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where he served until 1965 as Curator of Chinese Art. From 1965 until his retirement in 1994 he was Professor of the History of Art at the University of California, Berkeley. The College Art Association awarded him its Lifetime Distinguished Teaching of Art History award in 1995, and at its 2004 annual meeting devoted a Distinguished Scholar session to him, with papers by colleagues and former students. In 2007 the College Art Association presented him with its Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing on Art.

His many publications include the widely-read and much-reprinted Chinese Painting (Skira, 1960) and many other books and exhibition catalogs, in addition to numerous articles on Chinese and Japanese painting that have appeared in both scholarly journals and popular publications. He was also joint author of The Freer Chinese Bronzes, vol. I, 1967. He undertook a five-volume series on later Chinese paintings, of which three volumes were published: Hills Beyond a River: Chinese Painting of the Yuan Dynasty (1976); Parting At the Shore: Chinese Painting of the Early and Middle Ming Dynasty (1978); and The Distant Mountains: Chinese Painting of the Late Ming Dynasty (1982). He has also published An Index of Early Chinese Painters and Paintings (1980, reprinted 2003). Translations of his books have been published in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, as well as several European languages.

For the 1978-79 academic year he was Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University, delivering a series of lectures titled The Compelling Image: Nature and Style in 17th Century Chinese Painting. These appeared in 1982 as a book, which in the following year was awarded the College Art Association’s Morey Prize for the best art history book of 1982. His Franklin D. Murphy lectures for the University of Kansas were published in 1988 as Three Alternative Histories of Chinese Painting, and the Bampton Lectures given at Columbia University appeared in 1994 as The Painter’s Practice: How Artists Lived and Worked in Traditional China. The Reischauer Lectures delivered at Harvard University in 1993 were published in 1996 as The Lyric Journey: Poetic Painting in China and Japan, and a fifth lecture series, the Getty Lectures, were presented at the University of Southern California in 1994 as The Flower and the Mirror: Representations of Women in Late Chinese Painting, They remain unpublished, but another book that grew out of them, Pictures for Use and Pleasure: Vernacular Painting in High Qing China, was published in January, 2011. A number of his books and articles have appeared in Chinese translation in China and Taiwan, and have attained a wide readership.

In 1973 he was a member of the Chinese Archaeology Delegation, the first group of art historians to visit China from the U.S., and in 1977 he returned to China as chairman of the Chinese Old Painting Delegation, which was given unprecedented access to painting collections there. In the years after that he visited China frequently, lecturing at art academies and universities, organizing and participating in symposia, seeing exhibitions and collections, doing research. His major late-life project has been a series of video-recorded lectures titled A Pure and Remote View: Visualizing Early Chinese Landscape Painting; these are about to be posted on the web for free viewing (February 2011).

He has two children by his first marriage, Nicholas, now an archaeologist and professor of ancient art at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and Sarah, a pianist specializing in 20th century music who concertizes worldwide. Cahill and his present wife, the art historian and artist Hsingyuan Tsao, spent the 1998-99 academic year at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. They have lived in Vancouver, where she teaches at the University of British Columbia. Their twin sons Julian and Benedict were born in August, 1995. In the summer of 2006 Cahill underwent heart surgery and subsequently suffered a heart attack.  Largely recovering after some time in the hospital, reduced in energy and mobility but still mentally active, he returned to live permanently in Berkeley in his house, surrounded by his books and papers and attended by a host of grateful students, family, friends, caregivers, and frequent visitors.  Until the last month of his life he continued writing blog posts for his website, planning exhibitions including, with Julia White, “Beauty Revealed: Images of Women in Qing Dynasty Paintings” at the Berkeley Art Museum in late 2013, delivering lectures, and working on his series of video lectures about the history of Chinese painting.

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