Raymond Ward Bissell (1936-2019)

Personal Reflections 

Shelley Perlove

Professor Emerita

Ward Bissell, Professor Emeritus, University of Michigan, History of Art, died on October 26, at home with his beloved family as he awaited the start of the Michigan versus Notre Dame football game. His long, productive life was devoted to the University of Michigan, where he studied as an undergraduate, first in pre-dentistry until he discovered History of Art; then as a Ph.D. student under his mentor, Harold E. Wethey. After seven years at the University of Wisconsin, Ward returned to UM where he taught for 35 years, until his retirement in 2007. Professor Bissell excelled as a gifted, energetic teacher of undergraduates and graduate students, and served on 42 doctoral committees. This memoriam addresses his incredible legacy.


Specializing in Italian and Spanish art of the 17th century, Professor Bissell ranks among the most prominent scholars of the painters Orazio Gentileschi and his equally, if not more talented daughter Artemisia Gentileschi. Bissell’s first major publication on Artemisia in Art Bulletin in 1968 laid the groundwork for further research on this newly discovered, now justly famous woman artist. Ward’s major monograph, Artemisia Gentileschi and the Authority of Art, which appeared in 1999 with Penn State Press, followed the publication of his book, Orazio Gentileschi and the Poetic Tradition in Caravaggesque Painting of 1981, also from Penn State Press. Both monographs follow the honored tradition of Ward’s mentor at UM, Harold Wethey, by publishing a wealth of documentation. The Artemisia book is magisterial, with well-written and insightful text and detailed, lengthy catalogue entries. Bissell’s seminal publications have long stimulated discussion on the challenges of separating the works of Orazio and Artemisia. He also contributed entries to many exhibition catalogues and continued to offer advice on connoisseurship to collectors, dealers and auction houses, even up to a few weeks before his death.


An inspired and popular teacher, Ward Bissell will long be remembered by his undergraduate and advanced doctoral students. He directed and taught many times in the UM Study Abroad Program in Florence where I had the honor to serve as GSI. When I taught there myself on later dates, I fully adhered to his teaching model by insisting that all lectures take place on site in front of the actual works of art, rather than the lecture hall. 


I speak for others when I relate my own experience with Ward as an esteemed mentor. He was always enthusiastic, positive, and exacting in giving advice; permitting me to follow my own path as an emerging scholar, while gently prodding me to dig deeper in my studies. He made it very clear, without even saying so that archival research was essential to art historical research. This led me to have many crazy adventures in Roman archives, both public and private. Most importantly of all for my subsequent career, Ward was there when I really needed him to read my chapters without delay, in time for a job application deadline. I imagine we all have stories like this to share. 


Professor Bissell was very serious about his scholarship and teaching, but was also immense fun at parties. One year the graduate students invited him to come to a costume Halloween party. We laughed hysterically when he solemnly entered the room wearing a bedspread with small, color reproductions (University Prints) of medieval paintings pinned to the border and a tall hat. He also wore sequined, white gloves, before the time of Michael Jackson. 


Ward Bissell is survived by his devoted wife of 31 years, Tina (Goldstein), their son Alex Alden Bissell, and Ward’s daughter Kathryn Reed (Rob) and grandchildren Adam and Lilian Reed. Also surviving are his beloved brother Robin and his wife Sandy and their three children. Professor Bissell was preceded in death by his son Mark Weston Bissell and his parents, Raymond and Irvina Bissell.


Ward’s friends and family were the beneficiaries of his playful wit, bad puns, many acts of kindness, and unbounded enthusiasm for life, including his passion for painting, sculpture, architecture, antiques, gardens, and of course Michigan sports. In retirement he produced finely-finished wooden sculptures vaguely reminiscent of the style of Louise Nevelson. The greatest lesson he imparted to all of us was the deep satisfaction and pleasure one derives from studying original works of art.


In lieu of flowers, the family requests that any donations be made in Ward Bissell’s name to either the UM Department of History of Art Undergraduate Initiative or to the UM Museum of Art fund for new acquisitions. Both efforts support direct engagement with original works of art, an experience Ward Bissell believed was essential for everyone. For information on a donation contact Professor Christiane Gruber, History of Art Chair, cjgruber@umich.edu.