A transformative force in Yale art, Chaet dies

Bernard Chaet, a former chair of Yale’s Art Department who taught for almost 40 years and saw the transformation of the department into a nationally ranked professional school, passed away Tuesday. He was 88.

Chaet emphasized the importance of art as a discipline for those of all academic backgrounds and taught his students to think critically about art. He is widely credited with helping to chart Yale’s path to the forefront of American visual arts education. A renowned artist, Chaet painted throughout his life and exhibited his work nationwide.

“He stimulated an appetite for looking at art and trying to understand it,” said William Bailey, a close friend and colleague of Chaet’s.

Born in 1924 in Boston, Chaet studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and then at Tufts University from 1947 to 1949. He was appointed to teach painting at Yale in 1951 and soon became “the anchor around which the basic programs were offered in drawing and painting,” his colleague Richard Lytle said.

The current Dean of the School of Art, Robert Storr, noted that “[Chaet’s] years coincided with the years when Yale became one of the top art schools in the country.”

Part of Chaet’s success at the art school was his balance between teaching the basics, maintaining a full-time faculty and inviting prominent professional artists to visit and critique, Lytle said.

Chaet’s colleagues said his skill in the classroom was closely connected to his talent as an artist. An influential painter, Chaet’s works are part of several collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He also won numerous awards, including the Jimmy Ernst Award, and was elected to be a National Academician by the National Academy of Design, New York, in 1994.

“I don’t think you can teach well in art unless you can do it yourself,” said William Bailey, a close friend and colleague of Chaet’s, emphasizing the importance of Chaet’s own career to his teaching. “The greatest teachers I’ve known have been the greatest artists, and Bernie certainly fits that.”

Chaet outlined all of his artistic lessons in a book, entitled “The Art of Drawing.” Published in 1970, the work became a classic drawing textbook and went through several editions.

Louis Newman, the director of the David Findlay Jr. Gallery in New York where Chaet displayed much of his work, emphasized Chaet’s investment not only in his own art but also in that of his students.

“I’ve been a dealer my whole adult life and it was a rarity to find an artist who wasn’t jealous of his relationship with his dealer,” Newman said. “Bernie was the exception. … I would come up to see his work and he’d stop me and make sure we saw some promising artist’s work first. He had a rare generosity of spirit.”

Chaet’s love for his students extended outside the classroom, as he often went out of his way to help get his students jobs.

Samuel Messer, the associate dean of the School of Art, is planning to hold an exhibit in the coming days of some of the work kept as examples from Chaet’s classes, as well as some books of his paintings.

Chaet is survived by his wife, daughter and his two granddaughters.

Rishabh Bhandari contributed reporting.

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