Scrawled on a slip of paper dated August 5, 1968, to “Chuck” from the Hotel Sirmium in Sremska Mitrovica, Yugoslavia, Eric Hirshler writes: “I would be grateful to you if you could forward two info folders on Denison to me by Air Mail. I am establishing contact with the cultural attaché here and a reporter for McCall’s. Very exciting excavation; quite a big team. Will be leaving August 26th. Mail takes 5 days.” Minus his fear of snakes, Hirshler would have made a great muse for Indiana Jones. He was an academic with a love of Roman ruins and cathedrals, lured from the classroom into the field to unearth ancient treasures in exotic, faraway places.
During that summer in 1968, Hirshler had been visiting an important archaeological dig of Sirmium. Denison had been asked to participate in a Smithsonian-supported expedition to excavate the artifacts of the ancient Roman city, largely through the efforts of Hirshler, who was an associate professor of art history and chairman of the art department at the time. Hirschler served as the principal investigator and administrative director of the project, which uncovered pieces of Roman palaces, remains of a Roman road and bridge, and a 12th-century mass burial site, along with evidence of human layers of habitation from almost every century since 300 A.D.
Hirshler graduated magna cum laude in history from Bowdoin College, and continued his graduate studies in history at Yale University, where he earned his master’s degree in 1946 and his Ph.D. in 1951. He did additional graduate work in art history as a Kress Foundation Fellow at Columbia University from 1966 to 1967. Hirshler began his teaching career at Denison in 1959, spending his first eight years at Denison teaching German in the modern languages department and the next 22 in the art department as professor of art history.
Hirshler’s discovery of 46 original Baroque drawings in the Denison art collection led to the publication of an article about one of them in Master Drawings. He also discovered an original work by 19th-century artist J.A. Garnier in Denison’s collection and wrote about the painting in Apollo magazine. “Without the superbly navigated early leadership of Eric Hirshler,” says Joy Sperling, professor of art history and visual culture, “the art history and visual culture program could not have emerged so strongly.”
Hirschler died August 30, 2017, at the age of 93. He is preceded in death by his wife of 51 years, Marilyn Nair Hirshler. He is survived by his daughter Erica Hirshler, a senior curator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and her husband, Harold Clark.
–Sheila Haar Siegel