After more than 60 years teaching art history at Yale, Sterling professor emeritus Vincent Scully is stepping away from the lectern and turning his attention to writing and research.
At the age of 89, Scully — who over the years has been called Yale’s greatest lecturer and, by esteemed architect Philip Johnson, “the most influential architecture teacher ever” — said he does not feel well enough to teach his “Introduction to the History of Art” course. Apologizing repeatedly for canceling his famed course and for not having made his decision sooner, Scully, who has been teaching at Yale since 1947, said simply that he is exhausted, adding that he thought he would not be able to do a good job.
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“I kept hoping it would be all right,” Scully said in a phone interview Sunday. “I feel very sorry.”
The History of Art Department has not yet decided who will teach the course in Scully’s place.
After retiring in 1991 at Yale’s behest, Scully returned the next year as a professor emeritus. He alternated between teaching “Introduction to the History of Art” and a class on modern architecture. For the last three years, he has offered only the former course at Yale, which he said he loves for its exploration of the fundamentals of art history.
Each spring, he flew south to teach modern architecture at the University of Miami, where he is a visiting professor. But Scully said it is also unlikely that he will teach that course again.
“I’m going to miss teaching because that’s what I focused on [for] most of my life, especially because I’m retired,” Scully said.
His lectures are legendary; stories of Scully’s electric presence abound in the lore of Yale and the architecture community.
He is known for his passion and the intense, performance-like quality of his delivery. He is rarely still, his voice rising and falling to fill the room. He uses a pointer the size of a broomstick, and once ripped a hole in the screen — though he simply blazed past the mishap and even worked it into the lecture.
Another tale recounts the time that Scully became so carried away by his lecture on Frank Lloyd Wright that he fell off the stage. (Later, Scully told the Yale Alumni Magazine that it was merely an ill-timed jump.) The inimitable Scully clambered back up, bleeding slightly, to cheers from his students.
Perhaps one of the most well-known Scully moments occurred in 1991, when Scully officially retired and was set to give his last lecture to his modern architecture students. A cadre of his admirers and former students, numbering 75, stood in the back of the room to show their respect. Looking out at the sea of faces — from then–85-year old Johnson to 31-year-old Maya Lin ’81 ARC ’86, designer of the Vietnam War Memorial — Scully was so overcome that he had to go outside to compose himself.
“To be a Scully student is to sit in that lecture hall and be thrilled,” New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger ’72 said, as he awarded his former professor the inaugural Vincent Scully Prize in 1999. “It is to expect the transcendent and to be taught that learning about architecture can bring you to the transcendent.”
For Goldberger and many others, Scully’s course proved to be a life-changing influence. David Childs, a prominent Manhattan architect whose firm is designing the new World Trade Center, was a premed student before he took Scully’s class, according to a 1991 New York Times article. Lin has said Scully inspired her design of the Vietnam memorial.
The list of Scully’s famous students goes on and on. But in an interview, Goldberger suggested that perhaps Scully’s biggest influence has been on those who did not go on to work in architecture — those in other fields who walked away from one of his courses with an appreciation for art and architecture.
History of Art Chairman Alexander Nemerov said the department will miss Scully’s “outstanding teaching.” Yale College Dean Mary Miller, who was once the Vincent J. Scully professor of art history, said in an e-mail message that she is a “great admirer of his course, his passion, his insights, and his generosity to generations of students.” Robert Thompson, the master of Timothy Dwight College and an art history professor, said he hopes his colleague can be persuaded to return.
As a scholar, Scully has worked on a wide range of topics, studying and writing on forms as diverse as Greek temples and Native American architecture.
Scully said he would like to get back to his research and writing projects, one of which is a book about his changing view toward art history and its relation to Yale, the University’s History of Art Department and the discipline as a whole. Still, he continued to apologize for canceling the class.
“I’ll still be connected,” Scully said about his future work. “But I am sorry.”
Goldberger insisted that it was important to recognize that Scully did retire in 1991.
“There were 17 more years than we thought there would be. We certainly can’t say it’s a career cut short!” he said with a laugh. “One can’t get greedy here. There’s only so much of anybody that the world is entitled to.”