In Memoriam: Dr. Robert Farris Thompson, Pioneering African and Afro-Atlantic Art Historian

Dr. Robert Farris Thompson, the late professor emeritus of African American studies and the former Colonel John Trumbull Professor of the History of Art at Yale UniversityDr. Robert Farris Thompson, professor emeritus of African American studies and former Colonel John Trumbull Professor of the History of Art at Yale University, passed away last week at the age 88. The scholar and teacher was widely celebrated for his research and writing on the art, history, culture, dance, and music of Africa and the Afro-Atlantic world.

“Robert Farris Thompson was one of the 20th-century scholarship’s greatest originals—an artist, performer, historian, collector of people and ideas, and, most of all, a visionary,” said Dr. Mary Miller, Sterling Professor Emeritus of Art at Yale and former dean of Yale College who directs the Getty Research Institute. “First, and perhaps foremost, he was a student of the world, always a learner, and a teacher of the world, always guiding others to see what he could see.”

Among his many works, Thompson wrote Black Gods and Kings in 1972, Aesthetic of the Cool: Afro-Atlantic Art and Music in 2011, and a forthcoming book, Mambo. He is perhaps best known for Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy, first published in 1984 and continuously in print since then.

“Before Bob earned his Ph.D. in Yale’s art history department, African art was generally regarded as being of anthropological interest, primarily. Bob’s work did more to institutionalize the study of Black art as art than any other scholar’s work before his,” said Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University and one of Thompson’s mentees.

As the former head of Dwight College at Yale for 32 years, Thompson also was the longest serving leader of a college in Yale’s history. His career honors include the Arts Council of the United States African Studies Association’s leadership award in 1995 and the College Art Association’s inaugural Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing on Art in 2003. In May 2021, Thompson was awarded an honorary degree from Yale given his lifetime of academic achievement.

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