From the Editor

Vincent Scully's 90th

Yale art historian Vincent Scully ’40, ’49PhD, has received both Yale’s highest academic honor and the nation’s highest honor in the humanities. But possibly the most extraordinary thing about him is that he retired from teaching at the age of 89. And on the night this past October when the Yale Art Gallery held a dinner in honor of his 90th birthday, out of all the many career achievements Scully could have mentioned in his remarks, this is what he chose to bring up: that he taught his undergraduate lecture course in art history for 61 years.

“For generations of Yale students,” Richard Conniff ’73 wrote in his profile for our March/April 2008 issue, “Scully’s voice rising from the front of a darkened auditorium has been their first real experience of art and architecture.” His lectures were “a form of theater, one man on a stage serving up careful analysis, unabashed emotion, and an astonishing breadth of literary, mythological, and intellectual associations.”

So it was fitting that, at the October celebration, the main event was a series of talks. Scully couldn’t attend, to his great regret; he and his wife, Catherine Lynn ’81PhD, are now living in Virginia. But he sent a greeting by video, and five illustrious speakers were videotaped for the Scullys to watch.

The eminent historian David McCullough ’55 praised Scully’s speaking style: “There was never a taint of textbook academe. Not a whiff of stodgy. He had a way—fresh, vibrant—of looking not only at art and architecture, but at life.”

James Ottaway ’60, the newspaper executive and free-press champion, told how he and his wife had taken a second honeymoon in Greece, with Scully’s book on the ancient temples “literally as our itinerary.” In that book, he recalled, Scully criticized his fellow art historians for being “so busy measuring the size of the columns … that they forgot to look at where the buildings were sited.” His critique “shook up the architectural world.”

Yale College dean Mary Miller ’81PhD and art history chair Alexander Nemerov ’92PhD are the past and current Vincent Scully Professors of the History of Art. They spoke of Scully’s life as a teacher—and as a graduate student who worried (like every graduate student) that he would never succeed as a scholar.

Oscar-nominated filmmaker Nathaniel Kahn ’85 gave a dramatic reenactment of Scully’s description of the pain of a kidney stone. It had all the authentic Scully touches—the intensity, the celestial and scenic imagery—and it had the audience in stitches. But even the comic version reminded us that no one is better at articulating the human condition than Scully. And as Kahn told us, Scully's empathy and encouragement set him on the path to making documentaries.

We did hear Scully the great lecturer in art history, very briefly. In his video greeting, thinking of us sitting together in the Yale Art Gallery, a spectacular building by the architect Louis Kahn that is filled with spectacular art, he spoke of paintings with their “intense, burning red and blue and gold under the dark cement of Kahn’s slab”—the gallery’s looming latticed ceiling—“almost like a cloud.” It was a gift to us, but I suspect he couldn’t help it. His lectures always sound as if he speaks the ideas not quite at his own deliberate will. There’s nothing Delphic about it: merely the never-entirely-controllable impetus of creation. As Scully told Richard Conniff, his lectures are his art.  


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