Renowned art historian Charles Dempsey dies at 84

He specialized in Renaissance and Baroque art, mentoring several generations of students

Renowned art historian Charles Dempsey, professor emeritus in the Department of the History of Art in Johns Hopkins University Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, died of a heart attack at Georgetown University Hospital on Feb. 22. He was 84.

Specializing in Renaissance and baroque art, Dempsey was a rigorous and exacting scholar and mentor to several generations of students. In his dozens of publications, including several books, he traced the artistic, cultural, and intellectual dimensions of the artists he studied, drawing innovative conclusions about how they worked.

His research spanned subjects as varied as pagan mythology, archaic demons re-fashioned as "putti," the cosmology of Hieronymus Bosch, and the late Renaissance reform of painting by the Carracci and their impact on the naturalism of Caravaggio, said Stephen J. Campbell, Henry and Elizabeth Wiesenfeld Professor in the Department of the History of Art.

"His work, and that of his students and younger colleagues, on the great baroque writer and pioneering art historian Carlo Cesare Malvasia has transformed the study of art and historical writing in the 1600s," Campbell said.

Dempsey earned his PhD at Princeton under the direction of the influential Renaissance scholar Erwin Panofsky. "Dempsey's work was deeply grounded in the German and Italian traditions of Renaissance scholarship typified by Panofsky, but it marked a new direction in its turn from a philosophical and especially Neoplatonic framing of art, to an examination of the artist's embeddedness in vernacular culture, including urban festivals and rituals of masking, to the relationship between literary poetics and artistic style, and art as therapy against the forces of the irrational," said Campbell.

"Charles Dempsey's scholarship has made its impact slowly but powerfully, appropriate for work which never reaches publication without long years of meditation: its time, its moment was always its own, and its relevance has never been greater," Campbell said.

Through his scholarship and his teaching, Dempsey left a powerful legacy on the field. "Charles Dempsey is a foundational voice in the study of Italian Renaissance and Baroque art, and we at Hopkins deeply mourn his passing and will continue to honor his legacy and celebrate his life," said Rebecca Brown, professor and chair of the Department of the History of Art. "During his tenure at Hopkins, his teaching, mentorship, and scholarship shaped students' intellectual lives both in the classroom and around the graduate seminar table. His publications remain touchstones in those very same spaces today, sparking engaged conversation among our faculty and students, as they will for many years to come."

Jesse Locker earned his PhD under Dempsey in 2007 and now serves as professor of Italian Renaissance and Baroque art at Portland State University's School of Art and Design. He remembers Dempsey for his profound knowledge of the field and his insistence on rigorous and precise arguments.

"Charles Dempsey's work showed a rare breadth and depth of erudition spanning the entirety of artistic and literary culture of Renaissance Italy, and, along with it, a deft ability to dismantle then-cherished ideas about Renaissance art and artists," Locker said. "He had an uncanny ability to remember arcane classical sources or fragments of renaissance poetry that, for us graduate students, was simultaneously awe-inspiring and terrifying. Were we expected to be like that some day? His research continues to have a profound impact on me and on the generation of scholars who studied with him, as well as on those who read his prodigious output. His passing is a great loss to the discipline of art history."

A native of Providence, Rhode Island, Dempsey earned a BA from Swarthmore College in 1959 and a MFA and PhD from Princeton in 1962 and 1963, respectively. He was a fellow in the history of art at the American Academy in Rome, and then became assistant professor and then professor of history of art at Bryn Mawr College, serving as department chair from 1975 to 1980. He arrived at Hopkins in 1980 as professor of Italian Renaissance and Baroque art. He served as department chair from 1989 to 1995, and as director of studies at Johns Hopkins Center for Italian Studies in Florence, Italy. He was named emeritus in 2007.

Dempsey and his wife, Elizabeth Cropper—formerly a professor in the same department—were awarded the Jan Mitchell Prize and Charles Rufus Morey Award for their 1996 book, Nicolas Poussin: Friendship and the Love of Painting, which made a groundbreaking contribution to the understanding of the intellectual and social world of a canonical but under-appreciated figure of the "classical tradition" in European art. He was a member of the College Art Association of America, Renaissance Society of America, United States Committee for the History Art, the American Philosophical Society, and American Academy of Arts and Sciences.