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Students, Study Abroad, Undergraduate Student

A Month in London: ARTH110, January 2017

Every J-term, we offer a study abroad ARTH 110 Intro to Art History Course in London. This past January, Margaret Conley and Ben Kraemer were two of the undergraduate students who took part in the course. 

The London Skyline as seen from St. Paul’s Cathedral, featuring skyscrapers called the Gherkin, the Shard, and 20 Fenchurch. All photos by the authors.

This past January we were given the amazing opportunity to study art history in one of the most historic cities in the world – London, England. Personally, this was, and still is, the most incredible and life-changing learning experience we have ever had. Our days were spent traveling around to historic sites, museums, and learning what living in the city of London feels like. Our class focused on five topics: architecture, museums and collecting, British painting, Amerindian Art, and World War II in London. London was an amazing city to study art history because modern skyscrapers stand next to buildings that have stood since the time of William the Conqueror. The city has a thriving culture where people from all over the world convene and collaborate. London has one of the best modes of transportation – The Tube. This underground metro system makes traveling across the city extremely convenient and there is no better feeling than getting off the Tube and seeing one of the amazing landmarks London has to offer, like Big Ben, when you walk up the stairs and onto the street.

Hampton Court Palace, favorite palace of King Henry VII I who split from the Roman Catholic Church and changed the face of England forever.

The first week of our time in London led us to explore the history of England and delve deeper into the architecture of the historic city. The first day began exploring the Tower of London, the earliest Norman structure built in England. The structure was like a small town because it was so expansive. You could feel the history in the buildings walls as you walked through the buildings. Impressive armor, tapestries, and carvings decorated the buildings. One of the biggest highlights was seeing the Crown Jewels. The crowns that adorned the heads of the kings and queens of England were just a few feet in front of us. Diamonds and jewels the size of your fist helped decorate the priceless objects. We toured Hampton Court Palace, the favored palace of King Henry VIII and saw the impressive architecture that dominated the Tudor era. The bricks of the building formed intricate designs on the exterior of the building and even the chimneys had extremely ornate decorations. This edifice left no doubt about the power that the royalty contained. Westminster Abbey displayed the importance of wealth in the sacred realm through its magnificent Gothic architecture and decorative arts. This incredible building contained some amazing stained glass windows and contained the tombs of England’s royalty, including Elizabeth I and her sister, Mary I.

The Virgin and Child with the Infant St. John is the only Michelangelo sculpture in Great Britain and can be found at the Royal Academy. Unfinished with chisel marks visible, it is one of the many breathtaking pieces of art we saw in London.

The numerous museums of London were also explored during our month abroad, including the British Museum, Sir John Soane Museum, Victoria & Albert Museum, and National Gallery. Beautiful paintings, sculptures, and other artwork filled our days. Medieval artwork with amazing tapestries, Renaissance art, including the only Michelangelo sculpture in Great Britain, and modern artists were displayed. Seeing the brushstrokes on the works of art was incomparable to seeing images projected in a classroom.

Oxford is the world’s second oldest university.

The group took a day trip to Oxford as well. We got to see one of the oldest libraries in Europe along with the oldest building at the college. Not to mention, we got to see the library from Harry Potter along with the setting for the Yule Ball! Oxford was an amazing city and filled with rich historical figures. At every street corner, we could see something that inspired Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat, J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, or C. S. Lewis’s many theological writings. Oxford is a truly inspirational city.

2017 J-Term ARTH 110 Intro to Art History students pictured in front of the Tower of London.

The trip was not only about memorizing facts and dates. It was also about experiencing a new, vibrant culture across the Atlantic. We lived in the city of London and made connections that will last a lifetime, while learning from two great Art History professors, Dr. William Barnes and Dr. Victoria Young.

 

Research Travel, Senior Paper, Students, Undergraduate Student

Cultural Heritage Protection at the Aga Khan Museum

Justine Lloyd is an undergraduate Art History major and is currently working on her senior paper. She was awarded the Art History Department Undergraduate Research Grant to help make travel for this project possible.

This January, I had the opportunity to travel to Toronto with the Art History Department Undergraduate Research Grant.  The focus of my trip was to gather information for my senior research paper—a testament to all that I have learned as an Art History student here at the University of St. Thomas.  The focus of my project is on the widespread, systematic destruction and looting of the ancient Syrian city, Dura-Europos.  Because the protection of the artifacts within the city is important for both the art history field and the millions of people that have called Syria a home, I am also investigating possible solutions to the existing damage and ways to prevent further destruction.  Certain information about Dura-Europos has been difficult to find, as the site is located in a conflict-stricken area and the destruction and looting has been a fairly recent occurrence.  As so, the Art History Department Undergraduate Research Grant allowed me to gather material in a way that was otherwise inaccessible to me.

Tomb Relief
Palmyra, Syria, 123 CE
Limestone, carved
With permission of the Royal Ontario Museum © ROM.

I spent two nights in Toronto, giving me a full day to explore the Aga Khan Museum, which is dedicated to Islamic art and Muslim culture.  Its current exhibit, Syria: A Living History, contains several works of art and cultural artifacts that are similar to those being destroyed in Dura-Europos, including floor mosaics, temple reliefs, eye idol figurines, and stele.  For the first time, I was able to see Syrian art outside of a textbook or journal article.  I took part in a guided tour of the exhibit and spent some time browsing on my own, and can say without a doubt that it was one of the most striking exhibition layouts I have ever seen.  The high ceilings, dim lighting and dark-colored walls were both dramatic and intriguing.  This exhibit has been so popular that the Aga Khan decided to extend its showing from February to March.

Stele with Depiction of a Prayer
Tell Halaf, Syria, 10th–9th centuries BCE
Basalt, carved
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Vorderasiatisches Museum,
Photo: Olaf M. Teßmer.

Eye Idol
Syria, ca. 3200 BCE
Gypsum, carved
With permission of the Royal Ontario Museum © ROM.

The most valuable part of my time in Toronto was meeting with a curator of the Aga Khan, ‪Dr. Filiz Cakir Phillip.  As someone who was involved closely with the exhibition, Dr. Phillip was able to further my knowledge in Syrian art and aid in forming my case study of Dura-Europos.  We discussed the transitional process of artifacts from archaeological sites to museums, which is relevant in discourse related to cultural preservation of at-risk sites.   Dr. Phillip was also well versed in Syrian Antiquity Law, which was information I was having difficulty finding in English.

I am confidant that the information and resources I gained in Toronto will contribute to my development of a strong senior paper.  I am so grateful to have received the Art History Department Undergraduate Research Grant which made this entire experience possible.

Classroom, Faculty, Students, Undergraduate Student

Exquisite Corpses in the Classroom

Dr. Craig Eliason,  Associate Professor of Art History, is teaching a course on Modernism in European Art this fall semester. 

Participants in the Surrealist movement, which thrived in Western Europe between the World Wars, saw the creative potential in unexpected juxtapositions and the laws of chance. A favorite activity of the Surrealists was the playful activity of building a “cadavre exquis.”* In this game, paper is folded in sections and artists take turns drawing parts of a body (or whatever their creative impulses dictate) on the resulting sections of the paper without looking at what others have drawn in the adjoining sections. Only after all have added to the drawing is it unfolded to reveal the “exquisite corpse” they’ve collectively made.

Recently in my ARTH356 Modernism in European Art course, we made our own exquisite corpses, examples of which you see here.

One thing that struck us was how motifs appeared on multiple sections of the same drawing purely by chance.

By participating in creating these monstrous creatures, the class gained new insight into the theories of creativity put forward by Surrealists almost a century ago.

* https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/max-ernst-levade-the-fugitive

Graduate Qualifying Paper, Graduate Student, Research, Research Travel, Students

An Exploration of the Irish Holy Wells of St. Brigid

Clare Monardo is an art history graduate student currently completing her qualifying paper on the Irish Holy Wells of St. Brigid. She was awarded the Art History Department Graduate Research Grant to help make this project possible. Clare will present her paper at the Fall 2016 Graduate Student Forum on Dec. 16th.  

This summer I was fortunate to be able to travel around Ireland for three weeks researching the holy wells of St. Brigid in Ireland, which is the topic of my qualifying paper for this program. I have been exploring the St. Brigid’s holy wells for two years now and had hit a wall due to a lack of photographs and site-specific records, prompting this trip.

A sign marks St. Brigid’s Well, Killare, County Westmeath. In order to access the holy well, which is located in a copse of trees, visitors must walk through a field of grazing sheep. Photograph taken by author on June 4, 2016.

A sign marks St. Brigid’s Well, Killare, County Westmeath. In order to access the holy well, which is located in a copse of trees, visitors must walk through a field of grazing sheep. Photograph taken by author on June 4, 2016.

Holy wells are noteworthy settings because, in addition to being semi-man-made places of prayer and contemplation out in nature, many of them are believed to cure physical ailments in addition to spiritual ones. Almost every town in Ireland has at least one holy well, with some counties having upwards of one hundred, for a total of approximately three thousand wells in the country as a whole. The landscape in which holy wells reside shows an amalgamation of pre-Christian and Christian practice and have been enhanced by man-made additions such as signs, well-houses, paved paths, shrines, and the Stations of the Cross.

Stations of the Cross at St. Brigid’s Well in Cullion, County Westmeath. A path allows visitors to circumambulate the well while praying the Stations of the Cross. Photograph taken by author on June 4, 2016.

Stations of the Cross at St. Brigid’s Well in Cullion, County Westmeath. A path allows visitors to circumambulate the well while praying the Stations of the Cross. Photograph taken by author on June 4, 2016.

Throughout the course of my research I have come across one hundred holy wells dedicated to St. Brigid in Ireland, not all of which are still in use today. I was able to visit ten of these holy wells while in Ireland, along with local libraries, historical sites, and the Solas Bhríde center in Kildare run by Brigidine nuns. My qualifying paper focuses on four sites, located throughout the country: two wells in Tully, County Kildare; one in Ballysteen, County Clare; one in Faughart, County Louth. These four holy wells were chosen because of their popularity, the fact that they are still venerated today, and because the greatest amount of information regarding the Irish holy wells of St. Brigid focuses on these particular sites. Some of the holy wells that I visited were clearly marked and had road signs pointing the way, making them easy to find. Others, however, were not so obvious, leading to lots of extra driving around (which was already somewhat stressful as it’s on the opposite side of the road from what we’re used to!) and eventually having to ask for directions from locals. These included the St. Brigid’s Well in the Faughart graveyard and another located down the road from Raffony Graveyard.

 A stone beehive hut encloses St. Brigid’s Well in Faughart, County Louth, and there are steep steps going down to the water. To the left of the well are clootie trees. Photograph taken by author on June 12, 2016.

A stone beehive hut encloses St. Brigid’s Well in Faughart, County Louth, and there are steep steps going down to the water. To the left of the well are clootie trees. Photograph taken by author on June 12, 2016.

 

Tucked into a hillside down the road from Raffony Graveyard is St. Brigid’s Well, Raffony, County Cavan. Photograph taken by author on June 10, 2016.

Tucked into a hillside down the road from Raffony Graveyard is St. Brigid’s Well, Raffony, County Cavan. Photograph taken by author on June 10, 2016.

Two holy wells associated with St. Brigid, known as St. Brigid’s Well and St. Brigid’s Wayside Well are located in Tully, County Kildare. Both of these sites are still visited today, but the popularity of the Wayside Well has diminished in recent decades with the renovations of the nearby St. Brigid’s Well.

St. Brigid’s Wayside Well in Tully, County Kildare. Stone steps lead down to the murky and stagnant water, and a small amount of clooties and other items point to this well still being a place of veneration. Photograph taken by author on May 30, 2016.

St. Brigid’s Wayside Well in Tully, County Kildare. Stone steps lead down to the murky and stagnant water, and a small amount of clooties and other items point to this well still being a place of veneration. Photograph taken by author on May 30, 2016.

Ritual is an integral part of the holy well experience and it can involve not just the holy well, but also sacred trees and stones. Oftentimes trees nearby holy wells have pieces of cloth, called clooties, tied to their branches, marking them as being venerated. When visiting a holy well the afflicted takes a piece of his or her clothing and ties it to the tree with the belief that the disease which is plaguing them will be transferred from their body to the tree.

Located at the back of the axial site is St. Brigid’s Well. To the left of the well is a clootie tree with colorful ribbons and pieces of cloth tied to its branches. Tully, County Kildare. Photograph taken by author on June 1, 2016.

Located at the back of the axial site is St. Brigid’s Well. To the left of the well is a clootie tree with colorful ribbons and pieces of cloth tied to its branches. Tully, County Kildare. Photograph taken by author on June 1, 2016.

 

A small bridge passes over the stream at St. Brigid’s Well in Tully, allowing visitors to access the clootie bush on the right and the statue of St. Brigid on the left. Photograph taken by author on May 30, 2016.

A small bridge passes over the stream at St. Brigid’s Well in Tully, allowing visitors to access the clootie bush on the right and the statue of St. Brigid on the left. Photograph taken by author on May 30, 2016.

In addition to clooties, it has become quite common for visitors to leave a variety of other objects at holy wells. St. Bridget’s Well in Ballysteen, County Clare had the largest accumulation and assortment of items that I came across during my trip. Not only were there prayer and memorial cards, but also religious statues and images, rosaries, photographs, flowers, religious medals, an empty vodka bottle, a pair of children’s shoes, and a sparkly hula-hoop.

At St. Bridget’s Well, Ballysteen, County Clare, access to the holy water is gained by entering a whitewashed well-house that surrounds the well and proceeding down a dark and narrow passage. Multiple layers of votive offerings have built up inside the well-house. Photograph taken by author on June 8, 2016.

At St. Bridget’s Well, Ballysteen, County Clare, access to the holy water is gained by entering a whitewashed well-house that surrounds the well and proceeding down a dark and narrow passage. Multiple layers of votive offerings have built up inside the well-house. Photograph taken by author on June 8, 2016.

By going on this research trip I not only was able to access local sources that had been unavailable to me previously, but I also gained a better sense of how one is supposed to move through and use the space of holy well sites. Information from both types of visits will help me understand how ritual and space affect and inform one another at the holy wells of St. Brigid in Ireland as I continue to move forward with my qualifying paper.

Students, Undergraduate Student

Interning at Mia

Annie Vitale is an undergraduate Art History major who had the opportunity to intern at the Minneapolis Institute of Art  this past summer.

This past summer I had the wonderful opportunity to intern at the Minneapolis Institute of Art in the Learning Innovation department. I worked specifically with the Art Adventure program, a program that encourages children in grades K-6 to think critically and express creativity through the in depth exploration of artworks in Mia’s impressive collection.

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Some of the highlights of my internship included meeting Kaywin Feldman the director and president of Mia, planning Art Adventure events such as the Coordinators coffee, making and designing props for the Art Adventure program, touring the Purcell-Cuts house, and just being in the museum environment in general.

During my internship the special exhibition “Seeing Nature” was on display at Mia. These 39 stunning landscapes proved to be my favorite museum exhibition of all time. I thoroughly enjoyed meandering through the galleries on my lunch breaks and admiring the captivating depictions of nature.

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My experience interning at Mia was nothing less than amazing. The people I had the privilege of working with were wonderful: always willing to lend a helping hand, a listening ear, or sit down and talk about their careers over a great cup of coffee at Agriculture, the museum’s café. The environment was professional and productive yet fun and exciting. Each and every employee’s passion for their job was evident in their work and overall demeanor, which inspired me to always complete my work to the best of my abilities.

Working at a museum has made me fall in love with art even more and has solidified my decision to major in Art History. I would highly recommend a museum internship to anyone considering an art major, appreciates art, or has an interest in learning more about art and the inner workings of museums. Trust me, this is an experience you don’t want to miss.

Students, Undergraduate Student

Archaeological Field School 2016

Justine Lloyd is an undergraduate Art History major who had the opportunity to take part in an Archaeological Field School this past summer in Spain.

At the base of the Pyrenees in Santa Linya, Spain, a rock shelter known as Cova Gran has been the focus of researchers at the Autonomous University of Barcelona since its discovery in 2002.  The fascination with the site is due to the extensive evidence of both Neanderthal and human occupation as early as 50,000 years ago and into the Neolithic and Bronze Ages.  Each summer, a team of researchers, accompanied by undergraduate students from the United States, travel to rural Catalonia to excavate the site.  As a visiting student from the University of St. Thomas, I had the opportunity to contribute to the 2016 excavation season.

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The foremost goal at Cova Gran was to learn about the behavior of Neanderthals and humans.  Past years of the excavation have focused on mapping the transition between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens by identifying the differing sedimentary levels of the Mesolithic and Neolithic ages.  Our job was to attempt to understand the histories of populations on the site in the last 150,000 years, and the trends in cultural change by uncovering and analyzing the materials found.  The majority of our findings were either animal bone fragments or small tools knapped from flint or quartzite.  Each action we took in the excavation was aimed at being as careful and efficient as possible.  Fortunately, we had the help of some pretty cool instruments, like the Total Station, which uses a virtual grid for spatial reconstruction, and the Personal Digital Assistants, which interpret contextual information about the artifacts on site.  Fancy names aside, the work mostly consisted of digging, brushing, and picking through layer after layer of dirt.

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Each morning was spent working in a lab cleaning, analyzing, and recording the artifacts on a database.  We used a computer program that combined the information we gathered from the Total Station and Personal Digital Assistants on site with information about the specific artifacts offsite to illustrate trends and patterns within the sedimentary layers.  Essentially, we were finding out what different areas of the cave were used for and the years in which they were or were not inhabited.  It was so rewarding to be able to combine physical labor and research to yield such fascinating results in the insight we gained into the differences in evolutionary behavior among the cave’s past residents.

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As the only art history major among nine anthropology students, I was very suddenly and completely immersed in a field I had little experience in.  However, any feelings of stress were overpowered by my fascination with our findings.  I learned so much in such a short period of time—being able to work hands-on at the cave and take part in lab work gave me an understanding of the material that I could never have attained elsewhere.  I benefited so much from my peers and their knowledge in the subject, and by the second week I had the confidence that they learned from me as well.  The concept of understanding the past to improve the future is important regardless of scholastic discipline, especially with the current state of the environment.  Working at Cova Gran has given me a larger landscape of understanding the world at large—both past, present, and future.  I am also grateful to have had the opportunity to be so immersed in the culture of Catalonia. The academic and personal skills I have learned on this trip are invaluable.

 

 

 

 

Research, Research Travel, Senior Paper, Students, Undergraduate Student

Hanover, MA: A Little Portion of Saint Francis

Solena Cavalli-Singer is an undergraduate Art History major and recently presented her senior paper,  ‘Intent vs. Function: Portiuncula Replications and their Departure from Assisi.’  She was awarded the Art History Department Undergraduate Research Grant to help make this project possible.

I had no idea what to expect as I headed to Hanover, Massachusetts. All I knew was that I was there to see a chapel, one that had been carefully constructed to match its original counterpart in Assisi, Italy. The chapel, called the Portiuncula (Latin for “portion of land,”) was inspired by the Portiuncula restored by Saint Francis in 1209, which currently resides inside the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli. Saint Francis’ chapel has also become the inspiration for several other replications throughout the United States. I was fortunate enough to receive a grant so that I would be able to visit the replica in Hanover and use my research to aid in my Senior Paper.

The Portiuncula in Hanover resides on the Cardinal Cushing Centers campus, a school for individuals with intellectual disabilities. It is a prominent fixture on the campus, and in the town, because it is also the site of Cardinal Cushing’s resting place. The building is small, yet impressive, and one cannot help but be in awe when looking at it. In fact, the day I visited the sun was shining so brilliantly, illuminating the fresco above the entrance, that it was as if Saint Francis himself was overjoyed that I had come to see this piece of him.

After viewing the chapel, I was given free rein of the archives, located in an ­old dorm room that was in desperate need of organization. Newspaper clippings, photo albums, and old brochures filled up more than half of the room, but there was no true order to anything. Of several things I was sure: first, although I have never been in an archive before, I was certain that most people are not able to mill about and view what they please as I was able to do. Second, given the disorder of the room, I had no clue where to begin, and third, the most important thing was that I needed to leave with a floor plan of the Portiuncula. I spent well over an hour digging through various filing cabinets. The things I came across! Financial plans, newspapers detailing crimes associated with the Center, even a drawer full of relics with their original certificates – I felt as if I were reading someone’s diary, digging into their dark and complicated past.

Letter from architect, Frank Tarzia, during construction

Letter from architect, Frank Tarzia, during construction

I gathered all the information I could, but still had no luck with the floor plan. This was particularly concerning because I did not know how else I would obtain the dimensions of the chapel. After giving up and deciding that I would have to just contact various sources associated with the building to get the measurements, I began to pack up and head out. Then something happened that could only be considered a miracle. Three steps from the exit, I felt the urge to turn around. As I turned, I noticed a paper bag full of rolled up pieces of paper in the back corner of the room. I don’t know if it was pure coincidence, or perhaps Cardinal Cushing and Saint Francis really want me to write this paper, because those rolls of paper ended up being the original blue prints of the chapel – a gold mine! I almost cried tears of joy. Thirty minutes later, with all of the necessary information in my possession, I left Hanover with a smile on my face and excitement to piece together all of my research.

Original blueprint of the Portiuncula

Original blueprint of the Portiuncula

 

Graduate Student, Presentations, Research, Students

Art and Contemplation Graduate Student Research Symposium

By Sam Wisneski, graduate student

After months of planning and preparation, the sixth annual University of St. Thomas graduate student research symposium went off without a hitch. Wearing the hat of both presenter and symposium co-chair, I had some jitters and excitement about both my paper and the symposium overall, and how it would reflect on the Department of Art History. I’ve always been impressed with the collegiality and the warm, welcoming atmosphere of our department, and I truly think we showcase those qualities best in settings like the annual symposium – and this year was no different.

The symposium kicked off with a keynote lecture about Pieter Bruegel’s Resurrection from Dr. Walter Melion of the Emory University Department of Art History. In the words of Dr. Craig Eliason, the lecture was a “thrill ride.” Who said art history can’t be an adrenaline rush? If you missed the keynote or you enjoyed it as much as Craig, you can (re-)watch it here.

The evening continued with a reception where graduate student presenters, professors and UST graduate students got a chance to mingle and enjoy a spread of some of the very best offerings – I quite enjoy those little caprese kabobs, though they are a little awkward to eat and the dessert bars, oh my!

Saturday started bright and early, with the presenters arriving at 7:45 a.m. and the first paper presented at 8:30 a.m. to a full house. The rest of the day went very smoothly. From the morning sessions, to the gallery talk in the American Museum of Asmat Art gallery, to the afternoon sessions, I think we showed off the very best of the Department of Art History at St. Thomas. The student presenters were incredibly professional and gave some wonderful presentations. As symposium co-chair, this wasn’t all that surprising based on the many excellent abstracts we received following the Call for Papers – but a strong abstract doesn’t guarantee a great presentation. This time around, it was the case that both the abstracts and the presentations were quite strong. Not only that, the range and breadth of topics was impressive too. This year’s paper titles can be found here.

2015 Symposium Presenters with Dr. Walter Melion

2015 Symposium Presenters with Dr. Walter Melion

Following each presentation, our audience, packed into Room 341, offered some insightful questions to our presenters. As usual, it was a warm atmosphere for collegial banter – both literally and figuratively; the room was smaller than past symposium locations so it was a little toasty at times. My fellow graduate student presenters handled their questions graciously and with enthusiasm.

The absolute highlight and nightmare scenario for me though, was the feedback offered by our keynote lecturer. Dr. Melion carefully read the presenters’ papers and crafted several incisive questions for each of us – some even down to the granular level of semantics. He then called upon us to respond to each question. Easier said than done. We all furiously scribbled and captured mere portions of each of his questions.

Sam presenting her paper

Sam presenting her paper, ‘Soul Food as Sacrament: Social Practice Artist Meditations on Nourishment’

I felt a bit like I was on an episode of the Food Network series Chopped. I had served up my paper to the judges, and now I was ready to be grilled. Publicly defending your work is a delicate task – especially when scholarship can be so personal. You’ve spent lots of time with your topic, and even the slightest criticism can sting. You have to achieve a balance somewhere between defensiveness and concession – standing up for your paper but acknowledging that your scholarship is never really done.

Though difficult, opportunities to present and defend your work are formative. As scholars, we aren’t producing work in a vacuum, so outside insights are critical and I very much valued the thoughtful responses Dr. Melion provided for each of us. I think my fellow graduate student presenters, overall, felt the same way. In hearing feedback from presenters, I think we achieved both a welcoming and critical environment to consider this year’s symposium theme, Art and Contemplation.

I’d like to offer a special thanks to everyone who made this year’s symposium a success – while it didn’t quite take a village, it certainly took lots of support from our department as a whole: graduate student volunteers, the faculty co-chairs, Dr. Heather Shirey and Dr. Craig Eliason, and my co-chair Dakota Passariello, as well as the generous support of those in attendance. Thank you!

 

Graduate Student, Research, Research Travel, Students

Uncovering Joshua Johnson’s Baltimore

Alex Kermes is an art history graduate student completing his qualifying paper on the 19th century painter, Joshua Johnson. He was awarded the Art History Department Graduate Research Grant to help make this project possible. Alex will be presenting his qualifying paper research at the Art History Graduate Forum on December 18.

Joshua Johnson, the topic of study for my Qualifying Paper, is an enigmatic figure since so much of his life is unknown. Few details have trickled down from decades of scholarship on Johnson, who is considered the first African American portraitist in the U.S. I experienced this enigma firsthand while conducting research on him, and felt the department’s travel grant would help me uncover a great deal more.

Johnson lived and worked in Baltimore, actively painting portraits of middle and upper class clientele from the late-1790s to mid-1820s. Although he owed much to the influence of painters around him, he devised a style all his own. His paintings are characterized by thin layering of oil paint, minimal shading on his subjects (often children), and frequent use of props.

The third largest city in the U.S. during this period, Baltimore had an active African American population, both slave and free. Citizens interacted with a diverse population, and my research has focused on how Johnson responded to such diversity – in spite of the limited sources. The travel grant helped me understand Johnson as a person, living and working as an artisan in a time defined by slave and free status.

The reality of slavery sunk in while I dug deep into the sources in the Maryland Historical Society’s (MHS) library archives. While there, I read a manifest from the 1780s containing all sorts of transactions in Baltimore, including the legal documentation that set Johnson free from slavery. On one hand, it was an important record to look at closely as it assigned the conditions for which Johnson would become free, while on the other hand, these same pages contained transactions for horses, livestock, and ships in the harbor. This provided a disheartening reminder about a significant segment of America’s history.

Still, the MHS provided me with a wealth of details that helped me piece together a personal history of Johnson’s life. I looked at newspaper advertisements of other artisans and city directories that listed Johnson’s various residences throughout his life in the 1800s.

As an art historian, it was important that I see his work in person and up close, and there are far more of his paintings in Baltimore than the St. Paul-Minneapolis area. The Maryland Historical Society is home to a few, though they have a strict photography policy, and other can be found at the Baltimore Museum of Art. I spent time at both to examine Johnson’s works, and simply because both are quite fabulous museums.

While drafting the prospectus for my qualifying paper, one of the major comments I received stressed the importance of bringing his works forward in my discussion. My focus had drifted too far into Johnson’s context that his actual paintings took on a seemingly secondary role. Studying his works in person changed that remarkably. The subtle ways he handled his paint differ throughout the periods of his career, making it possible to identify a Johnson work from 1804 versus one from 1814. This spoke a great deal to me about the work he received during this period and how he was able to hone his craft.

Joshua Johnson, James McCormick Family, 1804-5, 50 x 69 in., Maryland Historical Society, oil on canvas (left); Joshua Johnson, Rebecca Myring Everette and her children, 1818, 55 x 58 in., Maryland Historical Society, oil on canvas (right)

Of course, Baltimore is culturally and historically significant, which meant on my free evenings (the MHS is open only until 5:00), I saw the U.S.S. Constellation parked in the harbor, poked my head in the Walters Art Museum which was located next to the MHS, and wandered the Baltimore Museum of Art’s galleries.

I certainly could have completed my Qualifying Paper without this research travel grant. Yet, studying Joshua Johnson’s Baltimore in person has given me tremendous insight into his life and what his career in painting was all about. Walking along High Street, close to the harbor, I could almost sense where Johnson might have lived and worked in the first decade of the 19th century. I truly built a personal connection to Johnson and his work by studying him on my Baltimore trip, and it increased my quality of research. My Qualifying Paper has already greatly benefited from every additional page of notes I took while in the archives and viewing his paintings and digging through the Maryland Historical Society’s archives – progress that I could not have made without the travel grant. Visiting Baltimore has made him much less the enigma he was when I began my research.