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.

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