Robert Beetem (1927-2018)
Robert Beetem, Professor of Eighteen, Nineteenth, and Twentieth Century European Art, and a specialist in French and British art at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, died January 20, 2018, in Berkeley, CA. Born in Carlisle, PA in 1927, Bob grew up there and in Los Angeles and served as a Geodetic Computer in the U.S. Army Air Corps from 1944-46. Accomplished both as an artist and an art historian, he studied at the Los Angeles Chouinard Art Institute before he completed a B.A. in art and English and an M.A. in art at Berkeley, where he was also a cartoonist for the Daily Californian. In Berkeley he met and married Barbara Francis, a fellow graduate student, before he continued into art history doctoral studies and a dissertation on Delacroix’s mural paintings. He enjoyed teaching appointments at the University of Michigan, University of California–Davis, Mills College, and Berkeley and Stanford. As curator and director of the Mills College Art Gallery he organized an exhibition of Delacroix drawings, watercolors and prints in west coast collections. After he joined the Madison faculty in 1965, Bob was a departmental chair, undergraduate and graduate advisor, and member of numerous University committees. He received the Chancellor’s Award for teaching in 1992.
The recipient of Fulbright and Sigmund Martin Heller Fellowships from Berkeley, and subsequently of American Philosophical Society, Fulbright Teaching, and U.W. Travel Grants, Bob was an inveterate researcher who attained rich and unusual archival findings. Aside from exemplary attention to form and content he raised questions about reception, quality, and context as he related art to a much larger world of ideas. His first published essay on George Catlin’s 1845 journey to Paris with ten Ojibwe Indians for the exhibition of the “Indian Gallery” illuminated Delacroix and Baudelaire’s highly varying responses to that experience. His study of “Delacroix and His Assistant Lassalle-Bordes: Problems in the Design and Execution of the Luxembourg Dome Mural” went far beyond scrupulous consideration of the mural’s process, architectural placement, and success to establish how the assistant’s collaborative role in that project upends romantic conceptions of Delacroix as the isolated genius at work. “Horace Vernet’s Mural in the Palais Bourbon: Contemporary Imagery, Modern Technology, and Classical Allegory during the July Monarchy” discussed not only the drama of Vernet’s celebration of Louis Philippe’s promotion of the steam engine and railroad at the very moment of the regime’s failure but the whole issue of “topicality” in modern history painting as perceived by Vernet, Delacroix, Manet and Seurat. A frequent lecturer on art in the Chazen (formerly Elvehjem) Museum, Bob was instrumental in the acquisition of Auguste-Xavier Leprince’s studio scene and wrote the exhibition catalogue of Daumier Lithographs: The Human Comedy (with student Margaret Mortensen). Aside from publishing in The Art Bulletin and Art Quarterly, he wrote for the University of Michigan Museum of Art, and reviewed exhibitions and books on a wide range of subjects for Contemporary French Civilization throughout his career.
Bob was beloved by students, colleagues, and museum audiences for his passion, high standards, good humor, and devotion to individuals. Aside from the many graduate students who wrote theses under his direction, several others continued on to careers in art history or French
art under the spell of studying or talking with him. Among his famous teaching escapades was a sketching journey that produced a painted copy and teaching slide of Matisse’s Joy of Life in the Barnes Foundation: in 1976 the Barnes was still so allergic to color reproduction it forbade Bob the use of colored pencils.
On September 17, 2016 Barbara Francis Beetem preceded Bob in death in Berkeley. A Professor of English who taught English and American Literature, Composition, and Mythology at Edgewood College, her primary research area was Chaucer and his sources. Barbara also won a teaching award and retired in 1992. They are survived by two children, John Francis Beetem, and Katherine (Katy) Beetem Ghysels, and two grandchildren, Jennifer Catherine Beetem and Elizabeth Rose Beetem. As John Beetem has recalled: “Going to museums with my parents was a wonderful experience. Dad, of course, knew the art and would point out interesting details. Mother knew the stories depicted by the paintings. So both enriched the experience but in different ways.”
–Barbara Buenger, Professor Emeritus