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Richard Wollheim Remembered
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Richard Wollheim Remembered

Bruce Vermazen

Richard Wollheim, who died in London last November, was one of the three or four most read and heeded philosophers of art in the English-speaking world after the publication of Art and its Objects in 1968. His searching philosophical style – following the subject wherever it led him – combined with his wide and deep knowledge of painting to illuminate both the creator’s and the beholder’s involvement with works of art. Wollheim’s writings also lit up the shadowy theoretical landscape of psychoanalysis, a system of belief he was passionately attached to. Over four decades, he published fourteen books, among them a 1969 novel called A Family Romance. Probably the most influential, besides Art and its Objects, which has appeared in two editions, are The Thread of Life (1984) and Painting as an Art (1987). Of the numerous articles he published in anthologies and journals of art, philosophy, and psychoanalysis, all, he once told me, were invited.

Wollheim’s father, Eric, was an eminent London theatrical agent who counted Sarah Bernhardt among his clients; his mother, a showgirl many years younger than Eric, was the more important parent in Richard’s upbringing. (A token of his independence from his father was Richard’s decision to pronounce the family name with a “v” sound rather than his parent’s anglicizing “w.”) The future philosopher’s Oxford education (1941-49) was interrupted by military service, during which he was briefly a prisoner of war. Between 1949 and 1963, he rose from Assistant Lecturer in Philosophy at University College, London, to head of that department and Grote Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Logic, two posts he held until he left University College in 1982.

Professor Wollheim’s academic career in the U.S. started in 1959-60 with a visiting stint at Columbia, where he later joined the regular faculty (1982-85). In 1981 he had visited at the University of California, Berkeley, and there he returned upon leaving Columbia, to stay until his retirement in 2002. From 1989 until 1996, he taught concurrently at the University of California, Davis. His Berkeley post became full-time only in 1998, when he was appointed chair of Philosophy.

Many other universities and colleges benefited from Wollheim’s presence during his long, rich life: among them in the U.S. were the Universities of Minnesota, New Mexico, and Kansas, the City University of New York, Harvard, Sarah Lawrence, Washington (of St. Louis, Missouri), Yale, and the Claremont Graduate School; abroad, the Universities of Sydney, Guelph, Cambridge, and Oxford. In addition, he taught at the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Institute and the Psychoanalytic Institute of Northern California and was the Ernest Jones Lecturer at London’s Institute of Psychoanalysis and the Andrew W. Mellon Lecturer at the National Gallery of Art, Washington. Although many honors were bestowed on him, including election to the British Academy and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, one, I think, stood out for him: the first Certificate for Distinguished Service to Psychoanalysis, awarded in 1991 by the International Psychoanalytic Association.

Wollheim’s vast experience and subtle humor made him the most agreeable of dinner companions. He especially enjoyed the society of artists and of young people, sources of energy to share and of fresh ideas to explore. Despite his stature in the profession, he always seemed to me to stand somewhat outside academia, observing it from a bohemia not far removed from the world of his parents. He was much loved by his colleagues and students. He is survived by his wife, Mary Day Lanier, their daughter Emilia, and two sons from his first marriage, Bruno and Rupert.

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