Cahill, a spellbinding lecturer with an avuncular manner, often took controversial stands.
After the National Gallery exhibit, he argued at a symposium of Chinese art experts that notable Chinese painters during the Ming dynasty were influenced by Western art. His theory was denounced by some Chinese scholars but the notion of foreign influences in Chinese art of that period is widely accepted today.
In 1999, he caused a stir when he charged that “The Riverbank,” a reputed 10th century masterpiece from the Southern Tang dynasty donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, was a fake. He said the painting, attributed to the Chinese master Dong Yuan, was actually painted by a well-known forger, Chang Dai-chien, who died in 1983. The controversy was widely covered in art and mainstream publications.
The museum stood behind the painting, which remains in its collection, but Cahill never backed away from his judgment; in scholarly circles, the painting’s authenticity is still a matter of debate.
“A lot of people felt his argument was quite convincing,” said Adriana Proser, curator for traditional Asian art at the Asia Society in New York. “He was really quite an imposing figure because he had this brilliant memory and incredible bank of knowledge. It was amazing to hear him talk about painting.”
Cahill did not grow up in a culturally privileged environment. He was born Aug. 13, 1926, in Fort Bragg, Calif., and lived with a succession of relatives and friends after his parents divorced when he was 2. At Berkeley High School, he was interested in literature and music. His father, a swimming teacher at the YMCA, “was disappointed his son wasn’t athletic,” Sarah Cahill said in an interview.
He entered UC Berkeley in 1943 to study English but with World War II on, he decided to study Japanese instead. He was drafted into the Army and became interested in art while serving in Japan and Korea.