Tributes to James Cahill

On the Road with Jim Cahill: Everyone recalls Jim Cahill as a spellbinding lecturer and author, but I remember him equally for the times we spent on the trail of Chinese paintings and historical sites in China and Japan. We climbed the Yellow Mountains together in the fall of 1982, both realizing in the same instant, after about a quarter mile hike straight up from the base, that the skinny kid whose offer to carry our bags we had disdainfully waived off 200 yards back was going to be our indispensible helper for the remainder of our journey. Jim remained a curator and collector at heart as well as an academic, his passion for discovery of objects inseparable from his intellectual quests. His generosity as an advisor was legendary, and it extended to shepherding students around the streets and lanes of Kyoto and Tokyo to visit collectors, dealers, and museum storerooms during his nearly annual summer sojourns to Japan and sabbatical year there, every viewing a fresh occasion for comment, anecdote, and insight. Jim's JAL camera bag was ever-present, feeding an image archive that was as much a product of his own labors as it was a gathered collection. He taught with and through those images, believing they offered an important kind of second sight to supplement experience and memory. Jim was also a great mapmaker, supplying hand-drawn maps complete with landmarks and directions noted as we set off on our own journeys of discovery. Mine were always well worn, treasured in their disrepair, signs of guidance that continued long after my student days, indeed that I feel still.
            Rick Vinograd, Christensen Fund Professor in Asian Art
            Stanford University

Remembering James Cahill: It was difficult, if not impossible, to resist James Cahill when he spoke about Chinese painting. He was a master of the slide show, slipping from one artful comparison to the next, more often than not "rocking the boat" (as he once put it to me) with an image so unexpected that the visual spectacle was made all the more thrilling. Even when he was at a loss for words — which, granted, was unusual — his silence was full of possibility. He once left a class before an image of Guo Xi's Early Spring with the remark, "Well, what can I say?" But it was an eloquent pause that beckoned everyone in his audience to take loving regard of a patch of ink wash or a sinuous form. Running headlong with him from one dealer's gallery to another in either Taipei or Kyoto, I was left breathless. Doubtless, I saw more paintings during my apprenticeship with James Cahill than I have in the decades since those heady days of learning how to look. His dedication to his chosen work never failed to amaze me. I once, by chance, opened his copy of the catalogue of the paintings in the National Palace Museum; every entry was annotated. His standards were high and only rarely, if ever, met by me. He was one of the few teachers I have ever known who read the footnotes of a seminar paper and corrected all grammatical and spelling errors therein. For most people this would have been more than enough for one lifetime. But James Cahill embraced many different art forms, perhaps most important among them having been poetry, music, and film. I recall an evening spent with Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. A booklet of the lyrics was prepared, for they were largely based on German translations of Chinese poems; the late Ed Schafer transcribed the texts in his large, rough hand. James Cahill introduced me to Chen Hongshou, but, equally important to both of us, he also recommended that I watch the films of Preston Sturges. My sense of awe for this man was only further enhanced when he told me that he once escorted Cary Grant to his seat in a Berkeley theatre! A mentor to a wide circle of people that opened well beyond the borders of Berkeley, he was unusually generous and open-minded, prompted, I suppose, by an insatiable curiosity about things intellectual. As his student, I always felt free to pursue an idea, even if it ultimately contradicted an idea of his own. At times, he even seemed to know more about what I was trying to accomplish than I did. In this way, he showed a keen understanding of other people, which was otherwise not often expressed. Long ago, after urging him to read translations of The Story of the Stone (then) recently published by David Hawkes, he wrote to me, asking whether I identified with the character Lin Daiyu. Of course, he was right, but he also expressed the hope that I did not weep quite as much as she did.
            Anne Burkus-Chasson, Associate Professor
            University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

The thorough training in stylistic analysis that I received as a student of Jim Cahill's has been invaluable to me in fulfilling my various professional roles as auction house specialist, appraiser, dealer, teacher, and curator, but most importantly, as an artist. Knowing how to break a painting down into its basic structural components — seeing what makes a successful painting work and an unsuccessful one fail — is a skill that is equally valuable when the process is reversed and I am trying to create my own compositions.

From Cahill I also learned that traditionalism and originality are not mutually exclusive. He helped me to recognize that the past can be a source of creativity and that in the right hands a healthy respect for tradition can be a liberating force.

I will always treasure the many hours spent looking at and discussing paintings with Jim, both inside and outside of the classroom, and I am eternally grateful for his guidance and friendship.
            Arnold Chang, Artist
            MA, Asian Studies, U.C. Berkeley, 1978

Thank you James Cahill: I have never met Professor James Cahill, nor ever talked to him in person. In the early 1970s I found a secondhand copy of his Chinese Painting edited by Skira in Geneva which in a way started my fascination for Chinese culture. Decennia later, when I wrote my Master Thesis on (contemporary) Chinese art, somebody at the China Art Academy in Hangzhou recommended that in order to understand Chinese painting I should read Cahill. The "Skira" book which had fascinated me in the 1970s came to my mind. And indeed — Professor Cahill proved to be my foremost (albeit physically absent) teacher.

Later I returned to Hangzhou to study Chinese painting, and this is how I came into e-mail contact with Professor Cahill, who encouraged me greatly by "enjoying" my scrolling painting on my website. I felt valued by such an eminent authority on Chinese painting.

Ever since I have been benefitting greatly from James Cahill's website and lately from the IEAS videos. His visual analysis, the way he breaks down the paintings, the way he directs the spectator to the significant forms and lines is unique. I also enjoy the quality of the reproductions which together with the wise and knowledgeable comments are a great inspiration for my own pictorial practice.

I am blessed that my way crossed the scholarship, knowledge and kindness of Professor Cahill. And amidst the sadness of his passing away, I feel we are privileged to be the first generation to benefit from technology enabling a wider and livelier dissemination of his life work. May his spirit continue to enlighten us!
            Elisabeth Philips-Slavkoff, Artist

Janet Roberts and James Cahill

Janet Roberts and James Cahill
Photo by Julia White

In Memory of Dr. James Cahill. Generous of spirit and kind of heart, Dr. James Cahill is missed by all who knew him through the study of Chinese Art. Dr. Cahill came to Fudan University in Shanghai, in 1987, when I was a foreign expert part of the US China Peoples Friendship Assn Exchange program, teaching future teachers, acting as writer/editor for a textbook on teaching of English models, and lecturing graduate students in the first American poetry survey course. I was attending lectures about Chinese art history with Dora Chen, who had graduated Smith College. I attended Dr. Cahill's week long seminar, and recall that he invited me to tea, in the faculty guest house, after which he showed me some of the new paintings he had acquired from artists living in Shanghai.

It would be some years before I would see Dr. Cahill again, until he lectured at Princeton University, when he had a residency at the Institute for Advanced Studies. There may have been other instances of hearing him lecture either in NYC or in Washington DC, but those contacts have faded from my memory. To my surprise, when I decided to remain in San Francisco, in January, 2013, having returned from China, in August, 2012, I discovered Dr. James Cahill had returned to his former home as a Professor Emeritus at UC Berkeley. I promptly joined BAM, and went to the reception honoring his gifts. Dr. Cahill introduced himself, when providing the gift of his screen and paintings to the Berkeley Art Museum, by saying he was known now, here, as "Sarah Cahill's father", which was endearing. When I spoke with Dr. Cahill, while also meeting the Asian Curator, Julia White, Dr. Cahill told me he remembered me and if there was anything he could help me with, in terms of any research I was conducting, he was happy to do so, and referred me to his website in process. This generosity of spirit to his students, and even to an independent lecturer and writer about Asian art such as myself — whose photography and remarks had been well received at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in its outreach series to regional museums and in the NEH/PHC administration of lectures under the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology, to libraries, community centers, and colleges on Art and Culture in China, Japan and Tibet — was consistent. I subsequently attended all his lectures at BAM and at the Asian Art Museum where he really provided us a chronology of his career and accomplishments, having won about every award possible for an art historian.

I was deeply grateful that before he passed away, on February 14, Dr. Cahill's caretaker had called me, to set an appointment to see him, one last time, at home, where he assured me that his family and he were reunited and that they had come to see him. It was a remarkable experience to witness his courage and fortitude in contributing his knowledge and perspective to the very end, including the final video where he says "good bye" to everyone. He has left us his legacy of all his lectures and research on line and the BAM celebrates his gifts of art, and all of us hold him in our hearts as his courage in his scholarship, especially in the last effort to elevate the portraiture and representation of women in Chinese art — has enriched all of our lives.
            Janet Roberts
            Consultant, Writer, Editor.
            Lecturer. Arts & Culture

If you would like to add a tribute to this online memorial, please send your contribution to Catherine Lenfestey at the Institute of East Asian Studies ( for posting.