Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Elder’s Semester at the Met

This past semester, Dr. Nika Elder has been in New York, working as the Chester Dale Postdoctoral Fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Here, she describes her research experience.


“If you’ve walked past my office in Katzen this semester, you may have noticed a sign that says I’m on ‘research leave’ through summer 2018 and wondered what that could possibly mean. Like students, faculty apply for—or are granted—opportunities that enable us to pursue our research interests, develop our professional profiles, and expand our horizons as scholars and individuals.

This spring and summer, I’m Chester Dale Postdoctoral Fellow in the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Though it sounds like I’m working for the museum, in actuality, it’s the exact opposite: the Museum provides approximately 50 doctoral students, professors, and curators the office space, time, resources, and community in order to pursue our own research projects (yes, it is as sweet as it sounds!).

My main focus is completing my book manuscript, which is tentatively titled William Harnett and the Afterlife of History Painting. Through the lens of Harnett’s still lifes, the book explores the ways in which the politics and visual culture of the Civil War impacted the possibilities for serious painting in the United States. At the museum, I’ve had the opportunity to research subjects as varied as photographs of Civil War soldiers, discourses around American literary realism, the European still-life tradition, and the emergence of contemporary ideas about “culture” and to analyze this material in relation to one of the most representative collections of Harnett’s work in the world. More specifically, though, I’ve done a lot of writing. When I arrived at the museum, I had drafts of three of the book’s four chapters. Over the past four months, I’ve written the fourth chapter and revised the three others so each has a concerted argument unto itself and a clear role in the project as a whole. Basically, I’ve been doing what the Art History department faculty asks our undergraduate and graduate students to do—only at a larger scale.

In addition to my research and writing on Harnett, I’ve also started a second book project on John Singleton Copley’s colonial portraits and race. With funding from AU and the Met, I’ve examined key Copley portraits in Boston and Virginia and traveled to London to speak on them at the Association for Art History conference.

I look forward to returning to AU in the fall and incorporating all these new ideas and materials into my courses and sharing them with our students.”

Elder Blog Post Photo

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