Competition: US & Canada
Education: Rutgers University
In the book project that will occupy most of my time during my Guggenheim Fellowship term, Skins: The Metamorphoses of John Singer Sargent, I use medical metaphors to account for what it is exactly that Sargent does with and through all those seemingly mobile layers of color he painted, and why it matters. I argue that in order to capture the shifting social roles and porous subjectivities of his fin de siècle patrons in all their finery, he dissolved the distinctions among fabric, flesh, and paint with the pictorial equivalent of dissection and its counter-activities: masking, binding, suturing, folding, and wrapping, sometimes within the very same figure. Sargent had his own privileged access to the world of medicine: his father FitzWilliam, a surgeon, had published a highly respected tract called On Bandaging (1846), which he apparently illustrated himself.
In 1907, the year he proclaimed publicly that he was done with portraiture, Sargent painted Lady Sassoon (née Aline Rothschild) as a partial écorché: her expansive but formless black opera cloak twisted to expose its rose lining as if it were a surrogate for the actual, visceral interior of the body. As the son of a physician, Sargent would have been well versed in the conventions of anatomical illustration. But the ambiguity between skin and garment that he constructs here is of a different order: Aline Sassoon’s lined cloak is a tour de force of corporeal inversion, as if her body has been turned partly inside out. The portrait is a mix of violence and delicate restraint, its aristocratic subject a veritable nerve center of Edwardian society, in whom its most intractable oppositions are fused together. My work demonstrates how the discourse and practices within visual culture interpenetrate a range of disciplines that are not traditionally linked to the “high art” of the canon.
I have a long-standing interest in exploring the ways in which subjects mediate the space between self and world. My first effort was an exhibition I curated at MIT’s Hayden Gallery (now the List Center for the Visual Arts) in 1982 called Intimate Architecture, which included eight different designers who produced clothing that was conceived and “built” like architecture.
My first book, Body, Place and Self in Nineteenth-Century Painting (Cambridge UP, 2000), explored varieties of interiority as represented through the painted domestic spaces of Degas, Sargent, Vuillard, and Walter Sickert. The book was awarded a literary prize in 2001 for outstanding nonfiction from the Philadelphia Atheneum. Paul Cézanne, whose work I wrote about in my second book, projected himself as if physically into every motif he painted; yet he could not bear to be physically touched by anyone. This conflict seems distilled in the twenty-four paintings and scores of drawings and watercolors that he made of his wife; her portraits are the focus of the book. Cézanne’s Other: the Portraits of Hortense (University of California Press, 2009), won the Motherwell Prize from the Dedalus Foundation in 2010.
In January 2014, my co-curator, Donna Gustafson, and I opened an exhibition called Striking Resemblance: The Changing Art of Portraiture at the Zimmerli Museum at Rutgers University, where I’m a Professor in the Art History Department. We wanted to explore what happens to a supposedly staid genre of representation in the age of social media. Prestel Press and the Zimmerli Museum co-published an accompanying book, which was substantially funded by the Mellon Foundation, as was a symposium, which featured Dr. Eric Kandel as our keynote. Dr. Kandel, the Nobel Prize–winning brain scientist, is the author of the Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain.
Work on other projects will continue during the fellowship year: an essay on Cézanne’s “Domestic Uncanny” and a series on Manet and contemporary art are currently underway. The other major project for the future is a book on the medical portrait in photography, from c.1880 to 1945. “Inventing the Medical Portrait: On the ‘Benevolent Asylum’ of Holloway,” on the casebook photographs for an asylum built expressly for the upper middle and upper classes in England, has appeared in the British journal Medical Humanities (a link can be found on my personal website).
These research interests—a marriage of portraiture and medicine—have generated curriculum and program developments at Rutgers and at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, which has just recently merged with the university. I have co-founded a working group on the Medical Humanities at Rutgers’ Center for Cultural Analysis with Ann Jurecic, a colleague from the English Department, and am collaborating with colleagues from the humanities, sciences, and medical school on a proposal that will address both undergraduate education in the medical humanities, and altering the way in which medical students are educated, developing courses for them on “reflective practice.”
I am a public school product (Girls Latin School, Boston, and UMass/Amherst). My Ph.D. is from the University of Pennsylvania, where I taught for twelve years before coming to Rutgers in 2005. Fellowships include support from the Getty and Kress foundations, the American Association for University Women, the Society of Fellows at Columbia, and a variety of publication subventions from the Millard Meiss Foundation, the Women’s Studies Program at Penn, and the Rutgers Research Council.
My husband, Ken Safir, is a linguist who also teaches at Rutgers; our daughter Emma is an artist and designer living in Los Angeles, and our daughter Miranda will be a college freshman in September.
Like a surprising number of art historians, I was a pre-med student early in my college career, and medicine had always represented the path not taken. But over the past five years it has circled back into my scholarship, my teaching and mentoring, and inspired a new kind of outreach work.
Profile photograph by Joanne Olivier