Obituary: Mark S. Weil, emeritus professor of art history, 82

Scholar and advocate for the humanities

Mark S. Weil (Photo courtesy of Joan Hall)

Mark S. Weil, the E. Desmond Lee Professor Emeritus for Collaboration in the Arts at Washington University in St. Louis, died at his home in Jamestown, Rhode Island, Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021. He was 82.

A native of St. Louis, Weil earned a bachelor’s degree in art history and archaeology from Washington University in 1961. He then earned both a master’s (1964) and doctorate (1968) from Columbia University, where his mentors included the influential art historians Meyer Schapiro, Julius Held and Rudolf Wittkower.

Weil and his wife, Joan Hall, in a hammock designed by artist Ernesto Neto. (Photo courtesy of Joan Hall)

“I led a charmed life as a graduate student, working with people who were pioneers of art history and studying in some of the greatest museums and libraries of the world,” Weil recalled to Washington Magazine in 2015. “It set an incredibly high standard of excellence for me.”

Weil returned to WashU in 1968 as assistant professor in the Department of Art History & Archaeology in Arts & Sciences, where he taught courses on Renaissance architecture, Rembrandt van Rijn and 15th– through 17th-century art theory, among other topics. He served two terms as department chair, from 1982-88 and from 1995-99.

“Mark’s lifelong passion for the study of original works of art was distinctive and contagious,” said Chair Elizabeth Childs, the Etta and Mark Steinberg Professor of Art History. “An exceptionally devoted teacher, he introduced students to ‘close looking’ in museums and notable private art collections — including his own. Markedly productive in his retirement, he actively continued to collect, to mentor art historians and to conduct research. Just months before he passed away, he published a scholarly study of the Renaissance engraver Giorgio Ghisi.” 

Weil’s scholarship fell into four primary areas: Italian Baroque sculpture, 16th- and 17th-century garden and stage design, the Marvelous age, and art connoisseurship. In the early 1980s, he led planning for a national Baroque festival, which included a symposium, an exhibition of theater and stage design, and a production of Handel’s opera “Orlando.”

Weil also helped found a center of archaeometry, which brought together scholars from across campus to apply scientific approaches to art conservation and the analysis of archaeological material. His publications include “The History and Decoration of the Ponte S. Angelo” (Penn State University Press, 1974/1990) as well as numerous articles and exhibition catalogs.

In 1998, Weil was named director of the university’s Gallery of Art, now the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, for which he organized several major exhibitions. He also helped to create the master plan that would link the museum with the university’s schools of art and architecture to create the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts.

After retiring, Weil explored his love of photography and exhibited his work at the Jamestown Arts Center. (Photo: Mark S. Weil, courtesy of Joan Hall)

Weil retired in 2005 and later relocated to Rhode Island with his wife, Joan Hall, the Kenneth E. Hudson Professor Emerita of Art and former director and master papermaker for Washington University’s Island Press. While living in Rhode Island, Weil embraced his love of photography, exhibiting his own work at the Jamestown Arts Center. He also took up the sport of ocean kayaking, enjoyed sailing, collected contemporary works on paper and, with his wife, served as an adviser to Dieu Donné, the acclaimed New York papermaking workshop. His final scholarly study, “Giorgio Ghisi, The Allegory of Human Life: An Analysis centered on Isabella D’Este and Her Heritage,” was completed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, Weil’s generous philanthropy has supported a range of institutions and arts programs, including Dieu Donné, the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and the Saint Louis Art Museum, where his many roles ranged from trustee and commissioner to chair of the collections committee. Weil and his former wife, Phoebe Dent Weil, donated nearly 200 works to the museum. These have been featured in numerous exhibitions, including “Learning to See: Renaissance and Baroque Masterworks from the Phoebe Dent Weil and Mark S. Weil Collection” (2017), co-organized by Weil’s former doctoral student Judith Mann (MA ’78, PhD ’86). Weil and Hall made an additional gift of artworks earlier this year.

In 2018, Weil created the Mark Steinberg Weil Professorship in Art History and Archaeology in Arts & Sciences, currently held by Claudia Swan. The following year, he and Hall established the Mark S. Weil and Joan M. Hall Fund for Art History and Archaeology, again in Arts & Sciences, which supports several annual research awards, fellowships and internships for both faculty and students. This fall, they expanded those efforts with a substantial gift to found the Mark S. Weil and Joan M. Hall Endowment for Art History and Archaeology to further support student and faculty research projects and collaborative initiatives in the study of the visual arts.

“Mark was a wonderful scholar as well as a passionate advocate for the arts and humanities,” said Feng Sheng Hu, dean of Arts & Sciences and the Lucille P. Markey Distinguished Professor in Arts & Sciences. “For more than five decades, Washington University has benefitted from his leadership, enthusiasm and discerning eye. These gifts will help to ensure the continued excellence and vitality of our humanities programs. Mark’s engagement in our mission and our future never wavered, and I always looked forward to our conversations. He will be sorely missed.”

Weil, in a note shared by Hall, recently wrote that “I am a great believer in the importance of the study of the humanities in education. If possible, I would fund the entire division of the humanities at Washington University.”

A portrait of Weil by Buzz Spector, professor emeritus of art. (Photo courtesy of Joan Hall)

The commitment to Washington University runs deep in Weil’s family. Steinberg Hall, which today houses classrooms and studios for art and architecture students, and Steinberg Auditorium, which serves the needs of the broader campus, were both a gift from his grandmother, Etta Steinberg, in memory of his grandfather, Mark C. Steinberg. Weil’s parents, Florence and Richard Weil, contributed many works of art to the university collection, and Richard served on the university Board of Trustees.

To honor their mother’s memory, Mark and his siblings — Richard, John and the late Paula Weil — and their spouses supported the creation of the Kemper Art Museum’s Florence Steinberg Weil Sculpture Garden. John, an emeritus trustee, and his wife, Anabeth, recently supported creation of Anabeth and John Weil Hall.

In addition to his wife and brothers, Weil is survived by his sons, Daniel and Alexander, and a grandson, Nathan.  A campus memorial service that was scheduled for Jan. 8 has been postponed due to COVID-19. A new date will be announced at a later time.

Weil donated his body to the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University in Providence. Memorial contributions in his name can be directed to the Saint Louis Art Museum, the Jamestown Arts Center and the RISD Museum.

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