A Teacher’s Gift

By Emily Gold Boutilier / November / December 2004
June 14th, 2007

For decades, a line of Brown students would form overnight outside the List Art Center at course-registration time. The students—future artists and curators as well as future businesspeople and lawyers—were there to sign up for Kermit S. Champa’s legendary art history lectures. An eminent scholar of nineteenth- and twentieth-century European painting, Champa, who was the Andrea V. Rosenthal Professor of the history of art and architecture, died on June 22 of lung cancer. He was sixty-four and lived in Providence.

“Kermit Champa gave generations of Brunonians the gift of truly seeing art for the first time,” said Maggie Bickford, professor and chair of the art history department, at a memorial service held on campus in October. President Ruth Simmons called Champa “one of the most beloved professors in the history of the University.”

A demanding teacher, Champa lectured without notes. Until shortly before his death, according to Bickford, he faithfully kept his Wednesday-afternoon office hours in List, where he mentored undergraduates, helped doctoral students revise dissertations, and wrote countless letters of recommendation. He took a briefcase of senior theses to the hospital with him when he fell ill.

For Sarah Burns ’04, Champa’s course HA 1: Introduction to the History of Art and Architecture was life-changing. “I was intellectually energized and engaged as I’d never been before,” she said at his memorial service. Champa never trivialized the undergraduate thesis, recalled Burns, who became one of his advisees. Always willing to look over her drafts, he seemed to take a genuine interest in her ideas.

Champa joined the faculty in 1970, a year that marked the opening of his groundbreaking exhibition of nineteenth-century German painting at Yale, where he had been an assistant professor. “Painting from this period in Germany is basically unknown in the United States, because most of it was quickly bought and museum­ized by the Germans,” Champa told the BAM that year. He said he hoped the show would reintroduce such painting “as the most effective and formidable alternative to French painting of the same period.” The show went on to tour museums and art centers throughout the world and earned Champa the Officer’s Cross of the German Order of Merit.

Over the years he also received a Guggenheim fellowship, as well as a perhaps less-sought-after honor: in 1975 Esquire magazine named him one of the ten “sexiest professors in America.”

Champa, who had put himself through school by playing the trombone, often incorporated his love of music into his study of art. He was the author of several books, including Studies in Early Impressionism and The Rise of Landscape Painting in France: Corot to Monet. In 1995 he became the first Andrea V. Rosenthal ’88 Professor, a chair endowed in memory of his former student who died in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103.

A travel fund for graduate students has been created at Brown in Champa’s memory. He is survived by his wife, Judith Tolnick Champa, 26 Old Tannery Rd., Providence 02906; two sons; a daughter; his father; and his stepmother.

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November / December 2004