Professor Oleg Grabar

The late Oleg Grabar, Professor Emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study in the School of Historical Studies, had a far-reaching and profound influence on the study of Islamic art and architecture. 

A native of Strasbourg, France, Grabar was born into an intellectual environment fostered by a highly-intellectual family that included his father, André Grabar, an eminent scholar in the field of Byzantine art. Oleg Grabar received his Ph.D in Oriental Languages and Literatures and the History of Art (1955) from Princeton University, thus beginning his his academic career at a time when there were few historians of Islamic art in the United States.

Now, Islamic art historians all over the world are indebted to Grabar‘s influence both as a teacher and as a thinker, author and teacher. During his first teaching post at the University of Michigan, Grabar earned a reputation as a superb undergraduate lecturer and seminar leader, and in 1969 was appointed Professor of Fine Arts at Harvard University where he taught for 21 years. He became the first Aga Khan Professor of Islamic Art and Architecture when that chair was established at Harvard in 1980, and upon retirement joined the Institute for Advanced Study in the School of Historical Studies becoming Professor Emeritus in 1998, where he devoted himself full-time to his research, writing and lecturing.

Professor Grabar is the author of more than thirty books and 120 articles in leading journals. His first book,The Coinage of the Tulunids(1957), focused on the ninth-century dynasty in Islamic Egypt. His seminal work however, remains The Formation of Islamic Art(1973), which evolved from lectures delivered in 1969 and were based on an article, “Earliest Islamic Commemorative Monuments,” in Ars Orientalis,a scholarly journal on Asian art and archaeology, that addressed the origins of Islamic art. This study was a defining one in the West and was translated into German, Spanish and Turkish, with expanded editions in French and English.

Oleg Grabar’s life remains a formidable legacy of inspiration. He held lectureships at institutions around the world and received all manner of awards in his lifetime. In 1996 he received the prestigious Giorgio Levi Della Vida Award (University of California at Los Angeles), awarded “to outstanding scholars whose work has significantly and lastingly advanced the study of Islamic civilization”.

He was the director of the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem(1960–61) later serving as the Schools’ Vice President (1967–75); a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society and the Medieval Academy of America; an honorary member of the Austrian Academy; the founding editor of the journalMuqarnas; from 1957–70, Grabar was Near Eastern Editor of Ars Orientalis, and a member of both the Steering Committee (1978-1988) and the Master Jury (1989) of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. He received the College Art Association Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing in Art (2005), the Charles Lang Freer Medal (2001. He was also a corresponding member of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, Institut de France; and a corresponding fellow of the British Academy. He was fluent in English, French and Russian.

Among his best known works are The Formation of Islamic ArtThe Illustrations of the MaqamatThe AlhambraThe Great Mosque of IsfahanThe Mediation of OrnamentMostly MiniaturesThe Shape of the HolyThe Dome of the RockPenser l’art islamique, and Masterpieces of Islamic Art: The Decorated Page from the 8th to the 17th century.

Oleg Grabar died in his home on January 8,2011 in Princeton, N.J. at the age of 81.