Obituary: Marilyn Stokstad

One of the most beloved art historians of our generation and a past President of ICMA (1993-1996) Marilyn always radiated a profoundly wide knowledge of art and sparkled with encouragement to all. At heart she was a populist asking all to look and learn, often offering advice with a dose of laughter. From the beginning Marilyn was a pioneer. For her MA at Michigan State University she sought her Nordic roots. Her 1957 dissertation for the University of Michigan on the Portico de Gloria of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela was an exceptional accomplishment. Marilyn was a pioneer in many ways and especially at time when as a young woman it required remarkable courage to venture to Spain alone for her research during the time of Generalissimo Francisco Franco.  Although the dissertation was never formally published she placed Santiago within a larger Europe artistic and cultural context, an approach that was built upon by many others; her work included an appendix on the role of color on the portal, many decades before the monument became a UNESCO site with legions of specialist focusing on its greatness. 

The multiple editions of her Medieval Art (1985 and 2004) and her extraordinary History of Art (the 2011 editions of 1150 pages requiring two volumes) attest to her profound impact on learning. The nucleus of these ambitious enterprises probably began with her dissertation that formed the basis of her 1978 book Santiago de Compostela, In the Age of the Great Pilgrimages. The beauty of Marilyn’s work is in the directness and simple elegance of the word and her idea about art, whether it be of the Middle Ages, or Chinese bronzes, that is not burdened by intellectual and verbal gymnastics.  Although her audience quickly became international, Marilyn was keen to bring to everyone’s attention the glories of Medieval art in American museums and libraries, thus always selecting works of art to illustrate that which one might actually see.

Her love of ICMA was manifested in so many different ways. She wanted future generations to benefit from her devotion to the art and culture of the Middle Ages and thus established an endowed Presidential Lectureship for the organization to be given every three years, most recently presented by Prof. John Lowden at the J. Pierpont Morgan Library in 2013.  Marilyn was there to champion the organization in the days when it was at risk of bankruptcy and help raise awareness and support, especially from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation.  At the University of Kansas she taught her entire professional life becoming the Judith Harris Murphy Distinguished Professor Emerita of Art History.  As an early Director of the Spencer Art Museum at the University of Kansas (1961-1968) she also established in 2012 an endowment named the Marilyn Stokstad Directorship. Among her many other achievements Marilyn was active with the CAA and was its President (1978-80).  As my predecessor Marilyn was always one I could lean on for wise advice, but as she passed the gavel to me she whispered ‘now I do not want to be a raspberry seed in the teeth.’  Of course, it was her way of offering gentle encouragement. Her enduring friendship, inspirational writing, teaching and humanity will be so much missed.

Charles T. Little, Department of Medieval Art and the Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art