Thomas Pelzel, Professor of Art History – In Memoriam

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Thomas Pelzel Meng Title PageThomas Pelzel, a professor of Art History during the early years of the university, died on July 3, 2022. Born in West Virginia in 1927, he completed his PhD at Princeton University in 1968 before coming to UCR. Tom served for many years – by special demand and vocal entreaties by colleagues and students – as Undergraduate Advisor but also for a period as Chair. His dissertation on the German painter Anton Raphael Mengs and Neo-Classicism became a book, and he published several important articles on the subject as well. The study of European art and theory of the neoclassical period remained his main field of scholarly work.

Intensive research on his dissertation brought him to Europe, especially to Germany and Italy, and his life there for an extended time deeply shaped his work and cultural affinities. Speaking German almost like a local, he acclimatized easily to the history, art, and mores of Southern Germany. His lectures and seminars on Bavarian and Austrian rococo churches and castles became a highlight of his teaching at UCR. Gifted with a rich language and a lively, often witty, style of performance he became one of the most popular undergraduate teachers at UCR, always commanding a full lecture hall. No one could walk young students, then mostly from California and before the digital age, so vividly through a Bavarian rococo church or the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. His lectures and seminars were always based upon meticulous research and a broad knowledge of culture and history. Whenever he appeared in the offices of the department, Tom was immediately surrounded by clusters of students. He gave his advice and guidance generously and far beyond the narrow restraints of office hours. When news came of his planned retirement, students organized a petition to ask him to continue teaching.

During his years at UCR Tom was not only a devoted teacher, but served tirelessly on various university committees. As he had studied the eighteenth-century culture of Europe he now turned with the same enthusiasm to the history of California and became an avid connoisseur and collector of Stickley furniture and the arts and crafts of the period. His collection of chairs hung, neatly organized, from the ceiling of his garage, but he would generously loan one or another to newly arrived colleagues to help furnish their empty apartments. In addition to furniture, he was an avid collector of European prints and art nouveau ceramics.

Tom and his wife Suzanne, who also had taught for several years at UCR, retired relatively early and moved to Ashland, Oregon. In retirement, he developed his collection and walked to local productions of Shakespeare plays every season, while also witnessing from afar the expansion of the department that he had helped to foster early on.