Published: December 16, 2008
Cornelius C. Vermeule III, who over four decades as curator of classical antiquities at the Museum of Fine Arts built a reputation for astute acquisitions, prodigious scholarship and engaging eccentricity, died November 27 from complications of a stroke, his daughter, Emily Dickinson Blake Vermeule, said. He was 83.
Born on August 10, 1925, in Orange, N.J., Cornelius Clarkson Vermeule III started collecting ancient Roman coins when he was 9; years later he donated part of his coin collection to the MFA so that the museum could purchase a sarcophagus †a stone coffin dating to the late Fourth or early Third Century BC.
He interrupted his studies at Harvard during World War II to serve in the Army as a Japanese interpreter. He returned to Harvard to earn his bachelor’s degree in 1949 and master’s in 1951. The University of London awarded him a doctorate in 1953. Vermeule was a famously productive scholar, publishing hundreds of books, articles and reviews.
Dr Vermeule taught at the University of Michigan and then at Bryn Mawr College, where he met Emily Dickinson Townsend, an archeologist and art historian who also taught at Harvard. They married in 1957. She wrote what many consider to be her generation’s textbook on the Bronze Age, Greece in the Bronze Age, 1964. She died in 2001.
Dr Vermeule took charge of MFA’s Greek and Roman art in 1956 and breathed life into a classical department rivaled only by that of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He added new lighting, new cases and a new, eager staff; dreamed up popular exhibitions like “Romans and Barbarians,” acquired hundreds of treasures and even donated important artifacts himself.
He made outstanding acquisitions for the museum’s classical collection, including two large, Fifth Century BC red-figured kraters portraying the fall of Troy and the death of Agamemnon, a Roman portrait of an old man and an exquisite Minoan gold double ax.
He said his favorite acquisition was the last self-portrait of Paul Cezanne, a European masterwork, which was purchased when Vermeule served as acting director of the MFA (something he did twice over the years). His own gifts to the museum, including a significant Etruscan statue, were often given under pseudonyms.
Dr Vermeule’s idiosyncratic style was reminiscent of gentlemen curators who intimately knew their entire collection, hobnobbed with museum trustees, courted rich donors and disdained talk of trivialities like salary. He drew the line, however, at disdaining pay explaining that he had too many mouths to feed, particularly those of his Dalmatian dogs, each named for a Roman emperor or empress. Dr Vermeule retired in 1996 so that the MFA could use his salary for employees facing dismissal in a cost-cutting campaign. He was named curator emeritus by the board of trustees of the museum.
In addition to his daughter, Dr Vermeule is survived by his son, Cornelius Adrian Comstock Vermeule, and two grandchildren. Services will be announced at a later date.
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