Professor Emeritus James Cahill, Chinese art expert, dies at 87

UC Berkeley lost a devoted scholar Feb. 14 when Professor Emeritus James Cahill died from complications related to prostate cancer at his home in Berkeley. He was 87.

A world-renowned scholar in the field of Chinese art, he taught on campus from 1965 to 1994, influencing many to pursue careers in the field. With a playful spirit, he was the embodiment of scholarly generosity to those who knew him, often sharing his personal art collection with students.

“He was the most extraordinary teacher,” said Mary Ann Rogers, his former student who has since become an art dealer. “(He had) immense energy and enthusiasm. He went a thousand miles a minute, his mind racing.”

After growing up in Berkeley, Cahill started pursuing his undergraduate degree at UC Berkeley, but his studies were interrupted when he was drafted into the U.S. Army as a Japanese translator during World War II. It was at this time he became interested in Asian art. After the war, he returned to complete his studies in Asian languages, graduating in 1950.

His interest in art culminated in a position as a Chinese art curator at the Sackler and Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., in 1956. In 1965, he accepted a faculty position at UC Berkeley.

“Berkeley was very important to him — the center of the world as far as he was concerned,” said Sarah Cahill, his daughter. “He was happiest here. It was his favorite place.”

Sarah Cahill remembers that even when Harvard University offered her father a university professorship, he chose to stay at UC Berkeley. A great connoisseur, he was known by his friends and family as a brilliant mind, producing a great number of publications over the course of his 60-year career. In 1995, he was recognized with a Lifetime Distinguished Teaching of Art History Award.

“I’ve never seen anyone type the way he typed,” said his son, Nick Cahill. “There was no thinking about the right word. It just flowed.”

James Cahill also created a website recording his life’s passions that includes a series of lectures and personal writings.

Before his death, he was preparing a new exhibition at the Berkeley Art Museum with the senior curator of Asian art, Julia White. Over the years, Cahill had also donated an extensive part of his Asian art collection to the museum.

James Cahill is survived by two children from his first marriage, Nick and Sarah Cahill, two sons from his second marriage, Julian and Benedict Cahill, and six grandchildren. A memorial service will be held later this year at the Berkeley Art Museum.

“Students kept interacting with him until the very end,” said Patricia Berger, a campus professor of Chinese art and his former student. “He’s part of our genes now.”

Contact Robin Simmonds at [email protected].