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November 1, 2010

The Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery have announced that James Cahill, former curator of Chinese art at the Freer and eminent scholar in many topics of Chinese and Japanese art history, will be awarded the Charles Lang Freer Medal in recognition of a lifetime of seminal contributions to his field. Over the years, Cahill’s scholarly writings and collaborative projects with other prominent Chinese art specialists have played an important role in the development of Chinese art history studies internationally. A specialist in Chinese painting, he has worked on major artists and their masterworks, as well as lesser-known painters, thereby broadly expanding subjects of study.

Cahill will receive the medal Thursday, Nov. 18, at 11 a.m, in a public ceremony in the Freer’s Meyer Auditorium.

Born in 1926 at Fort Bragg, Calif., Cahill received his bachelor’s degree in Oriental Languages from the University of California, Berkeley (1950), followed by his master’s degree (1952) and doctorate degree (1958) in art history from the University of Michigan. While pursuing his doctoral studies, he worked principally with the distinguished historian of Chinese art Max Loehr, a recipient of the Freer Medal in 1983. From 1954-55 he continued his research with the eminent Japanese art historian Shujiro Shimada at Kyoto University while on a Fulbright Scholarship in Japan (the Shimada Prize, also awarded by the galleries, honors authors of recent notable publications in the field of Asian art). In 1956, Cahill traveled to Stockholm to work with Osvald Sirén, a renowned Swedish scholar (and the first recipient of the Freer Medal) on his monumental seven-volume Chinese Painting: Leading Masters and Principles (1956-58).

Later that year, Cahill joined the Freer as curator of Chinese art. Destined for a leading role in the research and interpretation of Chinese painting, Cahill painstakingly surveyed the Freer’s extensive collection, leaving detailed observations that are still regularly quoted today. Working with colleagues Rutherford J. Gettens and John A. Pope, he also produced the landmark publication, The Freer Chinese Bronzes (Smithsonian Institution, 1967), a work centered on the museum’s important collection of archaic Chinese ritual vessels.

In 1965, Cahill returned to California to join the History of Art Department at Berkeley, where he taught until his retirement in 1994. In 1973, he was a member of the esteemed “Chinese Archaeology Delegation,” the first group of art historians to visit China from the United States, and in 1977 he returned to China as chairman of the “Chinese Old Painting Delegation,” where he was given unprecedented access to painting collections. He has received two Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Awards from the College Art Association and is currently professor emeritus in the History of Art department at Berkeley.

The Charles Lang Freer Medal was established by the Smithsonian Institution in 1956 to honor distinguished career contributions by scholars in the history of Asian and Near Eastern Art. Cahill will be the 12th honoree in an eminent group of earlier recipients, the most recent being Oleg Grabar in 2001.

The Charles Lang Freer Medal ceremony is one of several events that will mark the return to public view of the Freer’s world-renowned collections of ancient Chinese jades and bronzes Nov. 20, many of which Cahill studied and published during his tenure as a curator at the Freer Gallery of Art.

The Freer Gallery of Art, located at 12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W., and the adjacent Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, located at 1050 Independence Avenue S.W., are on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day, except Dec. 25, and admission is free. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines.