Dr. James Beck, Professor of Art History at Columbia University and one of our preeminent scholars of the Italian Renaissance, died on Saturday at the age of 77. This is a great loss, both of an extraordinary scholar and a controversial curmudgeon to the field.

Always outspoken, he courted controversy throughout his career – most notably because of, but certainly not limited to, his vehement criticism of the comprehensive restoration of the Sistine Chapel frescoes in the late 80s, of Giotto’s frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua in the early naughts, and lately on the attribution of the small panel attributed to Duccio bought by the Metropolitan Museum for a shitload of money a few years ago. He is also the founder of ArtWatch, an organisation dedicated to the monitoring of restoration efforts and other potentially damaging measures taken in the handling of art works.

Not being an expert on conservation issues or Duccio, I have no firm opinion on these issues – though I do find the Met panel beautiful – but I appreciate Beck’s tenacity in speaking against received wisdom, right or wrong, and in opposing the frequent sycophancy and dishonesty of the art market. And I do share the view of many specialists that the Titian Bacchus and Ariadne in the National Gallery of London was fatally overrestored in the 1967, so I am at least a little familiar with the problems Beck addressed. No one likes an attributional contractionist and no one likes somebody who throws his spanner into the highly expensive works of art acquisition or renewal. Beck is to be commended that he used his tenured position to speak up.

Beck received a BA from Oberlin in 1952, and and MA from New York University in 1954. His Ph.D., from Columbia in 1963, was granted with a dissertation on Jacopo della Quercia. He was named Professor of art history at Columbia the following year. My knowledge of his scholarship is unfortunately limited, but I am familiar with some of his important work on Raphael and Michelangelo, which is both original and substantial. His great monograph on Jacopo della Quercia is now on my reading list, and I shall be looking forward to reading his last book, From Duccio to Raphael – Connoisseurship in Crisis, which came lout recently.

Personally, I remember Beck well from my time at Columbia. I sat in on a couple of his classes, but unfortunately never got the chance to do an entire paper with him. My impression of him was of a feisty but also charming and friendly man and a committed and erudite scholar.

A good memory.

Photo from Columbia News.UPDATE: Read ArtWatch director Michael Daley’s full obit at Times Online.