James Cahill, an art historian and curator who played an influential role in expanding the study and teaching of Chinese painting in the West before and after the opening up of U.S.-China relations in the early 1970s, died Feb. 14 at his home in Berkeley, Calif. He was 87.
The cause was complications of prostate cancer, said his daughter, Sarah Cahill.
A longtime professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Cahill was a dominant scholar in his field for 50 years. In the late 1950s, he was one of a small number of Western scholars permitted access to the imperial paintings that had been evacuated to Taiwan before the Chinese mainland fell under Communist rule. He was allowed to photograph many of the works for “Chinese Painting,” his classic 1960 text that for decades was required reading in Chinese art history classes.
He helped organize a seminal exhibit of Chinese imperial art from Taiwan’s National Palace Museum that opened in 1961 at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. Called “Chinese Art Treasures,” the show traveled to other U.S. cities, including San Francisco, drawing large crowds to view works unseen in the West since the 1930s.
He also directed a project to produce high-quality color photographs of thousands of paintings from the National Palace Museum. The photographs became an invaluable resource for other scholars and museums.
“He was a pioneer specialist in the field and had tremendous impact,” said Rick Vinograd, the Christensen Fund Professor in Asian Art at Stanford University who studied under Cahill at Berkeley. “Early in his career, he was really a central figure in bringing knowledge of important monuments of Chinese painting to the general public and the academic world.”
In 1973, Cahill was among the first group of American art historians to visit China after President Richard Nixon’s historic meeting with Mao Zedong in Beijing the previous year. They were granted extraordinary access to view and photograph rare paintings at the Palace Museum in Beijing.