Shining a light on Paul B. Moses, trailblazing art historian

UChicago Laboratory Schools teacher honors his late father in an intimate exhibition

Paul B. Moses lived an extraordinary life and his son, Michael, wants the world to know. Moses broke racial barriers as the first African American student to attend Haverford College. A scholar of 19th-century French art, he taught art history at UChicago in the 1960s and quickly made an impact on Chicago’s art scene. 

He was a romantic who signed letters to his beloved wife, Alice, as “Othello.” While teaching in Rome, he wound up as an extra in the movie “Ben-Hur.” According to remembrances of friends and colleagues, Moses perfectly paired wines with well-cooked meals—a true Renaissance man.  

In 1966, at age 36, Moses’ life was tragically cut short when he was murdered by two young white men in an attempted carjacking. Michael was only 3 at the time.  

Decades later, Michael (known as Mike) began sifting through pieces of his father’s life that were carefully packed away in boxes. “Going through everything I realized it was important to let people know who he was, who he is and perhaps even who he would have been,” said Mike, a physical education teacher at UChicago’s Laboratory Schools for over 30 years.  

Letters, articles, photographs and original art by Moses can be seen in an exhibition at The Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections Research Center at UChicago’s Regenstein Library.  

Paul B. Moses: Trailblazing Art Historian blends family archive with tender recollections of friends and colleagues to sketch a portrait of a passionate scholar and empathetic educator. The exhibition is co-curated by Michael Moses, Lab'81, and art history PhD student Stephanie Strother. 

“The exhibition is so therapeutic—to help bring closure, to help bring new light and relieve some stress,” Mike said. “Now I feel just a little bit closer to my father.” 

Early life 

Mike Moses and Stephanie Strother met through their dogs. As Riley and Jasper played in an open area, Strother mentioned that she was a PhD student at the University studying art history. Mike mentioned his father had been an art historian as well.  

“The more he told me about his father's life and work, the more interested I became,” said Strother, whose research interests—like Paul Moses’—include 19th-century French art. “This is an important part of the department's history that I would love to find out more about.” 

As they opened boxes and read through letters, a chronology of a full life lived emerged. Strother suggested UChicago’s Library as a potential exhibition host. For Mike, who’d attempted to exhibit his father’s life for nearly a decade, it was “game on.” 

The exhibit begins with Paul’s childhood in Pennsylvania where he grew up in a large, working-class family. He excelled in school and showed an early aptitude for art.  

He was the first African American student to attend Haverford College. His freshman year, no white students would room with him. While at Haverford, Moses became a protégé of the collector and art connoisseur Albert Barnes and, through this relationship, traveled to France to further his art studies. After graduation, Moses served in the United States Army and taught at an international school in Rome. 

In 1959 he enrolled at Harvard University, where his research focused on the etchings and monotypes of French Impressionist Edgar Degas—something almost no other scholars were studying at the time.  

“Prints and monotypes, those are things that scholars have really devoted a lot of attention to only in the last decade or two,” said Strother, who is in Paris for an internship at the Musée d'Orsay. “The fact that he was so early to recognize and devote so much energy to studying them—it is pretty extraordinary, really.” 

In 1962 Paul married Alice Johnson, an elementary school teacher who would work at UChicago’s Laboratory Schools for 20 years. The couple moved to Hyde Park when Moses was hired as an instructor in the University of Chicago’s Department of Art.  

The scholar and the man 

As a new faculty member, Moses approached his research and teaching with characteristic zest. Friends and colleagues spoke of his empathetic teaching style in a broadcast aired by UChicago’s radio station WUCB in the wake of Moses’s death.  

“I think Paul was one of the most sensitive and enthusiastic teachers that I can recall,” said a colleague. “He had a remarkable capacity to communicate to students.” 

He taught classes in 19th-century French prints and Impressionism as well as other courses in the humanities. Moses made waves in the department when he refused to continue teaching Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”  

One of few Black faculty at the time, Moses was not afraid to voice his concerns about the novel’s depictions of race and slavery despite his colleague's objections. Several decades later, literary critic and UChicago Prof. Wayne C. Booth would come around. 

“Though I would of course resist anyone who tried to ban the book from my classroom, I shall argue here that Paul Moses’s reading of ‘Huckleberry Finn,’ an overt ethical appraisal, is one legitimate form of literary criticism,” Booth wrote in his book “The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction.” 

In addition to his formal teaching responsibilities, Moses also began to distinguish himself in the local art world. He wrote reviews and curated exhibitions. Only a few days before his death, he gave a lecture on Henri Matisse at the Art Institute of Chicago.  

Throughout his life, Moses was also an avid amateur painter and collector of art. His oils, watercolors and sketches can be seen throughout the exhibition. “From looking at his paintings,” Strother said. “It’s clear how much he was influenced by the Impressionists stylistically.” 

“Thunder Gust” hung above Mike’s bed for years and held a prominent place in his godfather’s home before that. He recommends visitors sit on the benches and spend some time with the art. 

“The way the light is projected on those paintings just really brings them to life,” Mike said. “I had them in my apartment, but I didn't have lights. Now they really speak to me.” 

A lasting impact 

The news of Moses’ tragic death shocked the University community. From the outpouring of grief, it was clear that Moses had made a strong impact even in his short years. “Everything in life was approached with learning and passion,” said a colleague during the “In Memoriam” broadcast, which visitors can listen to in full. “Everything he did, he threw himself into.” 

Former student Ray Lechman wrote that Moses “was a man who combined these qualities of guidance and companionship in such a way, and with such basic integrity and zest for life, that he created admiration and love wherever he went.” 

Both Strother and Mike, have thought about what Paul might have accomplished if his life hadn’t been cut short. “He was just at the very beginning of his career,” Strother said. “I have no doubt that he would have been a great and well-known scholar.” 

“Perhaps he would have ended up as a curator at one of the well-established museums somewhere in the country or in Europe,” Mike said.  

Next to the condolence letters is a poem written by Mike entitled “Relentless,” a word he uses to describe his father and the journey to bring his legacy to light. In the last lines he writes: 

I am now him.

I live his dream. 

I know who he is! 

—See “Paul B. Moses: Trailblazing Art Historian” on display at the Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections Research Center until Dec 16 or view the web exhibit.