In his nearly five decades of teaching at Princeton and in his service at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Wen C. Fong helped to create and shape the academic field of East Asian art history as we know it today. Born in Shanghai in 1930, he studied as a youth under the renowned calligrapher and scholar Li Jian (1881–1956). In 1948 he came to the United States to enroll as an undergraduate at Princeton University. He earned his B.A. and M.F.A. degrees at Princeton, where he studied European history and medieval art history, then received his Ph.D. in 1958 for a dissertation on Chinese art history. It was published under the title The Lohans and a Bridge to Heaven (Freer Gallery of Art, 1958).
Wen Fong taught Chinese art history at Princeton from 1954 until his retirement in 1999. He served as chair of the Department of Art and Archaeology from 1970 to 1973, and was designated the Edwards S. Sanford Professor of Art History in 1971. In 1959, together with the late Professor Frederick W. Mote, he established at Princeton the nation’s first Ph.D. program in Chinese art and archaeology. With the appointment of Shūjirō Shimada as professor of Japanese art history in 1962, the program was expanded to include Japanese art and archaeology. Since then, the program has granted more than forty Ph.D. degrees. Princeton graduates now hold teaching and curatorial positions in East Asian art on three continents and, along with their own students, constitute as many as three-quarters of the faculty teaching East Asian art history in the United States today.
As faculty curator of Asian art at the Princeton University Art Museum, Wen Fong involved his graduate students in path-breaking exhibitions and related publications, and helped to build the museum’s outstanding holdings of Chinese art, most notably the John B. Elliott Collection of Chinese Calligraphy, the finest such collection outside China.
Concurrent with his contributions at Princeton, Wen Fong served for nearly thirty years—from 1971 to 2000—as special consultant and then consultative chairman of the Department of Asian Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Working with benefactors and colleagues to build the collections, expand the Asian art galleries, and organize exhibitions and publications, he fulfilled the museum’s mandate to create at the Metropolitan an encyclopedic presentation of Asian art.
In 1998 he received the College Art Association’s distinguished teaching award, and in 2013 the College Art Association honored him with a Distinguished Scholar Session at its annual meeting.