Feminist Art History Conference to Resume in Fall of 2018


(Marie Denise Villers, Marie Joséphine Charlotte du Val d’Ognes, 1801)

Thanks to a generous endowment, the Feminist Art History Conference at American University will resume on a biennial basis starting in the fall of 2018. 

The 2018 conference will take place September 28-30, with a keynote address delivered by Amelia Jones, Robert A. Day Professor in Art and Design and Vice-Dean of Critical Studies at the Roski School of Art and Design, University of Southern California.

The conference builds on the legacy of feminist art-historical scholarship and pedagogy initiated by Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard at American University.  With the goal of fostering a broad dialogue on feminist art-historical practice, the event will feature papers spanning a range of chronological, geographic, and intersectional topics.  A call for proposals will appear this fall.

In the meantime, please direct all inquiries to feminist.ahconference@gmail.com.

AU Art History Student Noelani Kirschner Wins Best Graduate Student Presentation in the Humanities at the 27th Annual Mathias Student Research Conference

Congratulations to Elisabeth Noelani Kirschner, first year MA Candidate in Art History, for winning Best Graduate Student Presentation in the Humanities at the 27th Annual Robyn Rafferty Mathias Student Research Conference!

Noelani’s paper, “Self-Fashioning on the Eve of Revolution,” places Adelaide Labille-Guiard’s 1787 portrait of Madame Adelaide, daughter of Louis XV, in the context of royal power struggles on the eve of the 1789 revolution.  She considers the portrait as a form of public self-fashioning, in which the patron drew clear boundaries between the regimes of Louis XV and XVI, as the public grew disillusioned with Louis XVI’s reign. Exhibited at the Salon of 1787, the portrait helped to distance Madame Adelaide from the notorious Queen Marie Antoinette whose portrait hung in the same Salon. Whereas previous scholars have interrogated the motives of the painter, Noelani focuses on the role of the patron and the way she shaped this image. Examining the iconography and formal details of the painting, she concludes that through this historiated narrative, which is not strictly a portrait but also a history painting, Madame Adelaide can be seen as presenting herself as a solution for the future direction of France at a time of burgeoning political unrest.


Adelaide Labille-Guiard, Portrait of Madame Adelaide, 1787.

Congratulations to the other MA Art History candidates who presented at the conference: 

Amanda Chadbourne on her paper “Ambiguities In Lorenzo Lotto’s Portrait Of A Woman Inspired By Lucretia”

Elizabeth Cowgill on her paper “Lilly Martin Spencer: Class, Servitude, And The Cult Of True Womanhood”

Sarah Hines on her paper “Dressing For Liberty: Picturing Ideals Of Independence In John Singleton Copley’s Portraits Of Women”

Samantha Michelle Rhodes on her paper “Creation And Science: Landscapes By Frederic Edwin Church”

Katherine Stephenson on her paper “The Imagination And The Privilege Of Vision At San Giovanni Evangelista In Correggio’s Vision Of Saint John On Patmos (1520-1524)”

Congratulations to the undergraduate Art History seniors and Juniors who presented at the conference:

Isabella Gaitan, Junior, on her paper “Porcelana Del Mediodia: Una “Naturaleza Viva”

Jenne Jachles, Senior, on her paper “Bramante’s Tempietto: An Alternate Interpretation”

Emily Peikin, Senior, on her paper “A Royalist Abroad: Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun In Saint Petersburg”

Lucie Miranda Schwartz, Senior, on her paper “Themes Of Dynastic Lineage In Joseph Boniface Franque’s Portrait Of Empress Marie-Louise And Her Son The King Of Rome”


Well done AU Art History students!!!

Max Weber’s Rush Hour, New York as Cultural Artifact

” Max Weber’s Rush Hour, New York as Cultural Artifact” by Amanda Summerlin

Last week, in Dr. Bellow’s “Museum and Society” course, we examined the way cultural difference manifests in museum practice.  Our weekly assignment asked us to visit either the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art or the Freer/Sackler Galleries, and to note the way the museum’s informational texts described the artworks on display.  We then were asked to choose an artwork in the collections of the National Gallery of Art, and to write a text about that work using the language employed by curators at museums devoted to non-European art.

I chose to visit the NMAA and the NGA; in looking at the object labels at both institutions, it became immediately clear to me how the two museums’ approaches varied. Whereas the text for European and American artworks in the National Gallery of Art often included biographical information about the artists, and speculated as to the specific influences that may have shaped their expression, the NMAA described its objects in more general terms. The museum presented African works as examples of object types and included information about their general functions and significance across broad geographic regions and periods. I was surprised in how much this approach deprived the artists of these objects any degree of agency, and perpetuated a view of their culture as different and “Other.”

With that in mind, I chose to write an object label for Max Weber’s painting Rush Hour, New York (1915) as if it were one of the works on display at the National Museum of African Art. My intention was to reveal how the language that museums use to present artworks are one of the numerous ways that they shape our perception of other cultures, and effectively insert distance between non-African visitors to the museum and the objects on display.


The object label currently on view at the NGA simply presents the following basic information:
Max Weber
American, born Poland, 1881-1961
Rush Hour, New York
Oil on canvas

For my project, I reordered the information in the wall label and provided the added gloss:

European American artist, North America
Two-dimensional art object (painting)
Early 20th century
Colored pigment, linseed oil, hemp, wood
Gift of the Avalon Foundation

During the early twentieth century, some men and women were motivated to express their feelings toward changes in their physical and social environment through visual creations. This piece was created by a male artist who emigrated from a region known today as Poland to New York City in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. The visual imagery included in this work likely reflects the artist’s reaction to the sights, sounds and feelings toward the high amount of activity to his urban setting. In this work, the artist has applied pigment suspended in linseed oil to a tightly woven cloth composed of hemp stretched across a square wood frame. The abstracted shapes and fragmented forms that the artist has used to evoke buildings, people and forms of transportation from his native environment are signs that he may have belonged to a group artists who were experimenting with new forms of two and three-dimensional visual expression during this period.

Paintings like this work were frequently traded between artists and elite members of society as a form of currency in the early twentieth century. Obviously deemed inferior in quality in comparison to other two-dimensional works by the artist and lacking in monetary value, it remained as one of the artist’s personal possessions until 1970. Nine years after the artist’s death, the children of the late American executive and philanthropist Andrew W. Mellon discovered this work in a retail establishment specializing in the sale of decorative wall objects. Recognizing the status of its maker and its symbolic value within European American visual culture, they purchased and bequeathed it to the National Gallery of Art for later generations to study.


Faculty Spotlight: Drs. Juliet Bellow, Kim Butler Wingfield, and Ying-Chen Peng to present this weekend.

On Thursday, April 6th, Dr. Kim Butler Wingfield presented her paper “Sex, Spirit, Matter: Michelangelo’s, Raphael’s, and Pollaiuolo’s Vatican Sacred Bodies” in the Kennedy Auditorium at the Taylor Science Center of Hamilton College in New York.

Dr. Ying-Chen Peng is in Salem, Massachusetts this weekend presenting a paper titled “Empresses and the Qing Politics.” She is presenting this paper at a workshop for the writing of the catalog of 2018/2019 major exhibit “Empresses of China’s Last Dynasty,” co-hosted by the Peabody Museum and the Freer/Sackler Gallery.

Dr. Juliet Bellow is speaking in a roundtable this weekend at the Walker Art Center on the exhibition “Merce Cunningham: Common Time.” Along with historians Liz Kotz, and Roger Copeland, she will present her research on Merce Cunningham’s collaborations with visual artists Isamu Noguchi, Robert Morris, and Robert Rauschenberg. This roundtable is moderated by Common Time co-curator Joan Rothfuss.

Congratulations to our busy and ambitious faculty!


Viola Farber, Carolyn Brown, Merce Cunningham and Barbara Lloyd (from left) performing Suite for Five, 1963.


A photo of Empress Xiaokemin (Wan Rong,) last Qing empress of China

Faculty Spotlight: Professors Joanne Allen and Kim Butler-Wingfield travel to Chicago for annual RSA conference

Professors Joanne Allen and Kim Butler-Wingfield traveled to Chicago last week in order to present at the annual Renaissance Society of America conference. Founded in 1954, the Renaissance Society of America promotes the study of the period 1300–1650. The RSA brings together scholars from many backgrounds in a wide variety of disciplines from North America and around the world.

Dr. Allen organized a session called ‘Altarpieces and Architecture in Renaissance Florence’ which took place on Saturday, April 1st.  Her paper was entitled ‘Screening Images: Altarpieces and Tramezzi in Renaissance Florence.’

Dr. Butler co-organized a session entitled “The Visual and the Viewer in the Sistine Chapel,” which took place Thursday, March 30th.  Her paper was entitled “Beholding the Sistine Ceiling.”

Well done, professors!


A view of the sistine chapel ceiling, which  Dr. Butler considered in her paper, “Beholding the Sistine Ceiling.”

Sponsorship and American Heritage at the National Gallery of Art

“Sponsorship and American Heritage at the National Gallery of Art,” by first year MA student Victoria Proctor.

Two weeks ago, for Dr. Bellow’s Museums and Society course, students were assigned a research project to investigate the corporate sponsorship of a temporary museum exhibition, and to consider the relationship between the mission or values of a business and the programming it subsidizes. Inspired by the theme of institutional critique found in several of the course readings, I decided to work on the recent exhibition Three Centuries of American Prints from the National Gallery of Art (April 3-July 24, 2016).  Held in honor of the institution’s 75th anniversary, the exhibition’s primary sponsor was the Altria Group. This tobacco conglomerate, which (according to the NGA website) funded twelve exhibits prior to this event, claims to be “especially dedicated to showcasing the work of American artists.” With this goal in mind, Altria maintains that it donated $3.2 million to the realm of American “Arts & Culture” in 2016, as a substantial part of its “Community Investment” campaign.

Given that the exhibition sought to highlight several American “masters,” the reason why Altria would choose to sponsor this specific event is fairly evident. However, upon further inspection of the company’s website and other related materials, I uncovered deeper thematic connections between the exhibit and the corporate “giver.”  Altria’s corporate identity, as described in its online portal, is constructed around its “American heritage,” including “some of the most enduring names in American business” and offering Americans “thousands of manufacturing jobs…for almost a century.” In addition, the primary product that this corporation markets is tobacco (accounting for “more than half of cigarettes sold in the United States”), a crop that has been fundamental to American social and economic life since the colonial era. Indeed, Altria situates its own historical roots in the business ventures of infamous nineteenth-century innovators such as George Weyman and John Middleton, both of whom revolutionized the tobacco industry and inadvertently began an empire.

Similarly, Three Centuries of American Prints highlights, as the title suggests, a series of iconic American works from 1710 to 2010, ultimately establishing a historical narrative of artistic and cultural progress. The viewer of this exhibit was exposed to some of the most quintessential scenes from American history, such as Paul Revere’s rendition of the Boston Massacre (1770). Meanwhile, other  images illustrated technological and engineering achievements, such as Frances Palmer’s A Midnight Race on the Mississippi (1860), which depicts a steamship, and John Marin’s Woolworth Building No. 1 (1913), an ode to the skyscraper.  Viewers were thus encouraged to translate the pride they experienced in witnessing American innovation—both scientific and artistic—into appreciation for the company that made this show possible.  In turn, by openly associating itself with this exhibit, Altria underscored the fundamentally American identity that it has constructed and maintained over the past 180 years. This is, undoubtedly, a clever act on the part of executives at Altria to bring positive attention to their business, especially in a cultural environment where smoking is acknowledged by public health experts to be harmful to individual consumers and to society at large.

The conglomerate’s decision to maintain (and perhaps improve) their corporate image through arts funding is ironic considering the contentious history of one of Altria’s primary subsidiaries, Philip Morris USA.  As brilliantly articulated by Hans Haacke’s sculpture Helmsboro Country (1990), Philip Morris made a substantial contribution to the foundation of conservative North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms in 1988—at an amount estimated by some news outlets to be $200,000. The work, a giant replica of a cigarette carton, draws attention to this reality through Helms’s portrait in the central medallion, as well as the notation “Philip Morris Funds Jesse Helms” on each five-foot long cigarette. Helms, widely remembered for his stance against federal funding for AIDS treatment during the 1980s crisis, was also actively engaged in a campaign against federal funding for individual artists on the basis of their purported obscenity. In 1989, Helms, backed by 100 of his Congressional colleagues, rallied against the National Endowment for the Art’s sponsorship of “The Perfect Moment.” An exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs scheduled to be held at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, “The Perfect Moment” included works on “homosexual themes” that Helms and other opponents deemed taboo. At that time, many figures in the political establishment, including Helms, inaccurately characterized homosexuality to be a “threat to the public health,” given its arbitrary association with AIDs (hence, the original classification of the disease as GRID, Gay-related immune deficiency). As Haacke’s Helmsboro makes clear, Philip Morris’s financial contributions to the Jesse Helms Citizenship Center not only supported Helms’s censorship campaign, but also assisted in the construction of false narratives about homosexuality (as inherently “diseased”). The company thereby created a distraction from its own negative impact on public health as a large manufacturer of carcinogenic products.

This sordid episode in the history of Philip Morris conflicts with the supposed concern for “diverse communities” that Altria currently expresses on its online platform. Therefore, one must wonder whether, by using the funding of exhibitions as a public-relations strategy, Altria hopes to distract the public of today from Philip Morris’s substantial role in Helms’s discriminatory political activities of the 1980s and 90s. At the very least, we might note that Altria’s sponsorship of Three Centuries of American Prints from the National Gallery of Art does not match the grand vision of “diversity” it claims to uphold. The exhibition largely adhered to a canonical view of American art history, thus doing little to combat the general exclusion of certain groups—including women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community—from museum spaces.  In this view, what type of narrative about American art (and American culture more generally) is this syndicate attempting to construct through its endowments?


Hans Haacke, Helmsboro Country, 1990

Alumni Spotlight: Allison Leigh

Allison Leigh earned a B.A. in Art History from American University in 2005. She then went on to earn an M.A. and Ph.D. in Art History from Rutgers University with a focus on 18th and 19th-century-Russian art. In 2016, Allison was appointed an Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.  Below, she discusses her current projects and how her studies in art history at AU helped her become the professor she is today:

I remember my time studying art history at American University with such incredible fondness.  I had no sense of it at the time, but I was being honed and shaped by the amazing professors in the department in ways that would ultimately inform the way I teach now! The first art history class I ever took was to fulfill a General Education requirement and it was Helen Langa’s class – something with “Caves to Cathedrals” in the title, if I remember correctly. It changed my life. I had no idea that the field of study that is art history even existed when I walked into that room and I was enchanted from the beginning. Something about those old slide projectors with the little slides rotating around and the darkness of the room just got me hooked. I went on to take everything I could with both Dr. Langa and Kim Butler Wingfield. Both of them brought such intense depths of knowledge about their subject areas to the courses and the feminist analyses they introduced me to made me see the relevance of art history in my everyday life.

I sought Dr. Butler’s advice about pursuing a Ph.D. after I graduated and she was so candid about what it was going to take if I wanted to become an art history professor.  I’ll always be grateful that she was willing to discuss the various options with me and that she made suggestions about how to become a strong candidate when applying. It was Dr. Butler who supported my pursuit of a specialization in Russian art (I had minored in Russian and Slavic Studies at AU); we talked about how it was an understudied area among American scholars and that I stood to make a real contribution to the field by producing scholarship on works that are virtually unknown in the West.

I ultimately found wonderful mentors to study with at Rutgers University – one of whom, Susan Sidlauskas, had been the Ph.D. advisor of another very influential professor I had at AU, James Hargrove – and I received my Ph.D. after six years of intense study in 2014. I was awarded a Postdoctoral Fellowship to teach at the Cooper Union in New York City for two years and then I just started the tenure-track job at the University of Louisiana in the fall of last year.  Since starting, I’ve been very busy finishing three articles and working on a book manuscript.  One of the articles I completed recently was about 18th-century Russian portraiture and how dress regulations in the time of Tsar Peter the Great shaped the construction of identity in that period.  The others were for Slavic Studies journals and explored issues of the intersection between French and Russian painting in the 1830s and 1870s respectively.

The book I’m now completing, Superfluous Man: Masculinity and Modernity in Russian Painting, definitely reflects the training I received at AU for conducting gender analyses – though I have gravitated towards the emerging field of masculinity studies at this point in my career.  The book is an analysis centered on the so-called “crisis in masculinity,” but instead of an exploration of the French or American contexts, it investigates how several under-studied Russian painters sought to depict the lives of men as they grappled with the changes wrought by modernity throughout the 19th century. In addition to these research projects, I teach a range of courses on European art from the Renaissance through the contemporary periods. Right now I’m teaching a course on Orientalism and I’m planning a Russian and Central Asian art survey course for the fall semester. I hope to prepare a specialized course recalibrating the Renaissance through Modern survey for the spring that will cover only female artists – I dreamt that up over a decade ago while a student at AU and I feel like it’s a way of coming full circle back to my original training to teach it now.