Jerome Pollitt, erudite scholar, admired teacher, university citizen

Jerome Pollitt
Jerome Pollitt (Photo by Michael Marsland)

Jerome Pollitt ‘57, a distinguished historian of Greek art and archaeology, who made ancient artifacts come alive by weaving them into their historical and literary contexts, died on April 24 after a long illness. He was 89.

Pollitt, Sterling Professor of Classical Archaeology and the History of Art, Emeritus, was a scholar of the first rank. From his earliest days at Yale as an assistant professor in 1962, he published, in quick succession, “The Art of Greece 1400-31 BC” (1965), “The Art of Rome 753 BC – 337 AD” (1966), and “The Ancient View of Greek Art” (1974). His “Art and Experience in Classical Greece,” known by many students, appeared in 1972 and was called by J.E. Lendon and Elizabeth A. Meyer “[one] of the enduring monuments of that exciting time when the study of Greek art in context was young and unbeneficed, bold and heretical, dangerous and brave.”

In all, his six books made significant contributions to his field at an important moment of its development.

Milette Gaifman, the chair of the Department of the History of Art in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, wrote on hearing of his death that Pollitt was “one of the true giants of his field, far ahead of his time in showing how ancient Greek works of art and architecture were integral to daily experience by seamlessly analyzing artworks and monuments together with ancient literary texts.”

Mark Lawall, chair of the managing committee at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, the center for the study of the Greek world from antiquity to the present day, where Pollitt began as a research student, wrote that Pollitt “brought ancient thoughts about ancient art into the modern scholarly debate, and he brought order to the chaos of Hellenistic Art.”

Throughout his career and the publication of six books and many articles, Pollitt was recognized as a scholar who superbly integrated historical context into his analysis of ancient Greek material culture. He was also a wonderful teacher and mentor – learned, punctilious in his scholarship, serious but not pompous, frank but engaging, generous, and witty.

For his combined excellence as a scholar and teacher he was awarded the Wilbur Cross Medal from the Alumni Association of the Yale Graduate School and the cherished William DeVane award for scholarship and teaching by the Yale chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. In 2005, two of his former students, Judith M. Barringer and Jeffrey M. Hurwit, assembled a festschrift in his honor. “Periklean Athens and its Legacy: Problems and Perspectives,” offered a panorama of the art, architecture, history, culture, and influence of Periklean Athens.

There are few scholars of Pollitt’s rank who also take on recurring major roles in university administration, but Pollitt’s administrative skills and sense of duty, perhaps combined with his strong educational views, led him to shoulder these responsibilities. He served as chair of the Classics department twice and chaired the History of Art department as well.

Between 1986 and 1991, appointed by then-Yale President Benno Schmidt, Jr., he served a term as dean of the Graduate School. He held that position during what was a challenging period at Yale, participating in leadership roles with two colleagues who shared his views: Donald Kagan, Sterling Professor of Classics and History, who was dean of Yale College, and Frank Turner, John Hay Whitney professor of History, who was provost. All believed in conveying, through scholarship and teaching, the importance of the contributions of the past to the nation’s political, historical, and cultural heritage.

Pollitt was born in New Jersey and was one of Yale’s own, a graduate of the Hotchkiss School (then a “Yale feeder”), where he said he had such good teachers and classical mentors that his first years at Yale were “restful.” At Yale he was engaged and galvanized in his interests by mentors, including the renowned architectural historian Vincent Scully, who was known for bringing the world of ancient architecture alive for generations of students.

The turning point in his career development, however, was certainly the “magical” year he spent after college as a Fulbright Fellow at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens (ASCSA). His study of the Greek world greatly contributed to his passion for art and archaeology, and galvanized his choice, after service in the Army, to undertake graduate study in the Art History and Archaeology program at Columbia University. There, he said, he was again lucky in his teachers and mentors, particularly his dissertation advisor, the scholar Otto Brendel. In 1962 he returned to Yale as an assistant professor and remained on the faculty until his retirement.

Pollitt is survived by his wife Susan Baker Matheson, the Molly and Walter Bareiss Curator of Ancient Art and Lecturer Classics, emerita, who herself published on Greek vases, ancient glass, Roman sculpture, and women in Roman art and society. Together they co-authored “Old Age in Greek and Roman Art” as well as “Greek Vases at Yale.” Susan was a crucial colleague and partner in the joy and enrichment of Jerry’s life and achievements.

An online memorial event will be held in the fall. Information about its date and time will be available later through the departments of Art History and Classics.

Friends and colleagues said that, as a scholar, teacher, and citizen, no school could ask more of any member of its faculty than Jerry Pollitt contributed to Yale, and that Yale is lucky indeed to have him among its list of “Yale worthies.”

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