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November 25, 2015

Obituary: Aaron Sheon

Aaron SheonAaron Sheon, professor emeritus in the Department of History of Art and Architecture, died Nov. 8, 2015, in his Coraopolis home. He was 78.

The department today, said another of its emeritus professors, David Wilkins, “is recognized as one of the distinguished departments in the University. I would like to think that those of us who built the department, including Aaron, were a part of that.”

Sheon was born in 1937 in Toledo, Ohio, earning his BA and MA in art history in 1960 from the University of Michigan and his MFA and PhD in art history from Princeton in 1966. He wrote his thesis on Adolphe Monticelli, a French Pre-Impressionist who worked with Paul Cezanne and influenced Vincent Van Gogh.

In 1962, Sheon received a Fulbright Award to conduct his thesis research at the Sorbonne in Paris, then worked there at the UNESCO (the United Nations Education and Scientific Office) 1963-66.

In 1966 he joined the Pitt faculty, teaching about modern art and architecture, serving as undergraduate adviser for many years and curating several of the first exhibitions in the University Art Gallery. He also chaired the department twice, in 1968 and 1978-79.

Outside Pitt, he was a Herodotus fellow and research member at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies in 1984-85. He lectured at a number of other institutions, including at Carnegie Mellon University, the College Art Association, New York University and the American Association of Psychoanalysis.

Sheon did pioneering work demonstrating that Theo van Gogh’s terminal syphilis spurred his brother Vincent’s suicide. In 1980, Sheon and Post-Gazette writer Donald Miller published “Organic Vision: The Architecture of Peter Berndtson,” a comprehensive survey of this Frank Lloyd Wright disciple in Pittsburgh. He also wrote the catalog for a two-museum exhibit of painter Paul Guigou’s work and for a traveling exhibition on Monticelli’s friends and influence.

Sheon earned numerous awards, including a Wilson Fellowship to Princeton University in 1961, a Ford Foundation/International Dimensions Research grant to study new educational uses of museums in developing countries (1967), two Faculty of Arts and Sciences research grants (1969 and 1973), and the College of Arts and Sciences’ Tina and David Bellet Teaching Excellence Award (2002).

Wilkins recalls Sheon’s role as the modernist in their department’s early days: “That was a really important part of our offerings.” Sheon became widely known for his knowledge of Monticelli; whenever new Monticellis were discovered, Wilkins remembers, “Aaron became an expert on determining which ones were real and which ones were forgeries.”

He also notes that today professors in his department often work alone online to select art examples to use in class. “One of the things that really united us as a faculty was our time in the slide room,” Wilkins remembers. “In the good old days Aaron and I had a wonderful time in the slide room. There would be a lot of banter and discussion back and forth. He would sometimes show me photographs: ‘How could anyone think this was by Monticelli?’”

He recalls his colleague as enjoying “pulling people’s legs, but at the same time he was a very solid teacher, very engaged with the students, and if there were any kind of problem with the department I could count on Aaron having a good opinion on it.”

Barbara McCloskey, who joined the department in 1990 and is now chair, recalls her arrival. “He was very good to me — showed me around the city — and really mentored me early in my career. He just had this great empathy for colleagues and students, for people who needed a helping hand, for people who were trying to establish themselves. When I really had no concept of where I was, no concept of how to teach or how to be a colleague,” Sheon helped her learn how to run both seminars and larger classes, and even helped her buy furniture for her apartment.

When she saw his accomplishments listed in one spot, after his death, “it was a revelation to all of us how deep and rich his career had been, because he simply didn’t flaunt it. He did it all.”

Sheon is survived by his wife Jill; his daughter Sandrine and her husband Elijah Wald; his son Nicolas and his wife Susannah and their daughters Sophie and Saskia; his stepson Chris Belasco and his wife Jess Ghilani and their daughter Emilia; his stepson Phillip; his godson Julian Critchfield; and his brother Robert and his wife Irma.

Memorial contributions may be made to a scholarship fund for Pitt students studying art in Paris: the Aaron Sheon Memorial Fund, Office of Institutional Advancement, 128 N. Craig Street, Pittsburgh 15260.

—Marty Levine   

Filed under: Feature,Volume 48 Issue 7

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