Shaping feminist art history at Vassar today

Linda Nochlin is one of the most important feminist scholars in the field of art history. She got her start at Vassar, where she uprooted the art world with her seminal 1971 essay. / Courtesy of Vassar College

Only a select few people are capable of changing the world through their writing. Former Mary Conover Mellon Professor of Art History Linda Nochlin ’51 was one of them, with her masterpiece 1971 essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” uplifting the art world, and feminist critique, forever. Nochlin passed away on Oct. 27 of this year, but her legacy lives on through her writing and the thousands of students and colleagues she profoundly impacted.

Nochlin taught at Vassar from 1952 to 1980, but she frequently returned to receive a plethora of awards, remain- ing involved in the department and lecturing about her recent work to several generations of students. Professor and Chair of the Art Department Brian Lukacher remarked on this unique connection: “I believe that she viewed Vassar as having had a transformative influence on her, and she returned the favor by generously lending support and showing sustained interest in the welfare of the department.”

A Vassar graduate, Nochlin quickly returned to the College after receiving her M.A. in English from Columbia University. She was inspired to pursue the study of art after hearing a public lecture on Chartres given by visiting lecturer Adolf Katzenellenbogen, which brought her to the field and back to Vassar as a professor of the subject.

Vassar professors have always been given flexibility in their teaching, and with the arrival of third-wave feminism in the ’70s and extensive reading on the subject, Nochlin decided to teach a senior seminar on “The Image of Women in the 19th and 20th Centuries.” It centered on both women as the object of art and women as artists.

In a transcript of a 2011 conversation between Professor of Art Molly Nesbit and Nochlin, Noch- lin explains this change in the curriculum: “I saw that women could be brilliant thinkers and hard working thinkers and devoted serious thinkers. And I liked that. I mean I felt at ease, and comfortable” (Vassar 150, “A transcript of a recorded conversation between Linda Nochlin and Molly Nesbit in New York City,” 2011).

While a simple switch in the course curriculum may seem insignificant in modern times, this was, as Professor Nesbit noted, a great feat: “She brought feminist art history to Vassar. [Nochlin was] teaching us to excavate and learn the history of individual women artists … [Students were] learning the grassroots of art history.” Vassar is an institution that encourages critical thinking and originality, with Nochlin, as Nesbit asserted, “Happy to be leading the charge.”

During her tenure at Vassar, Nochlin published the essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?,” which examines the systemic and societal forces that have inhibited the proliferation of women artists throughout history. As Professor of Art on the Sarah Gibson Blan- ding Chair Susan D. Kuretsky explained in an introduction for Nochlin’s 2004 lecture at Vassar “Why Contemporary Art is Great: two women, one man,” “[Her seminal essay] is written with no anger, no ax-grinding—only the most precise logic, the most faultless historical research and the most elegantly dispassionate prose. Once read, it sets up shop permanently in one’s consciousness and, it’s fair to say, the world has never been the same since it appeared in 1972.”

The question of why there was no female equivalent to the likes of Rembrandt, Cézanne or Picasso had never been asked before by the art historians. The art world has continuously been dominated by a male-centered voice, with no opportunities for women to achieve institutional and social success. Her discussion of this ineq- uity was monumental, uprooting the ingrained confines of art history at Vassar and the art world as an entity.

Nochlin’s essay features in the curriculum of the introductory Art 106, and one can feel the urgency of Nochlin’s call to action falling off of the page. It speaks to the reader through a dynamic prose that defies set conventions.

Additionally, the work was particularly special to the campus community because it was written during her time at Vassar. Professor Lukacher explained this significance: “Professor Nochlin had a singular role in defining the feminist intervention into the practice of art history that resonated throughout the academic world, the museum and gallery system and the development of contemporary art.”

Lukacher continued, “She was never doctrinaire in her forms of advocacy and was continuously questioning the assimilation of radical and progressive ideas into a mainstream complacency. This searching aspect of her writing and her character has informed the collective teaching and shared insights of our department and its own ongoing re-evaluation of how art history shapes and frames multiple visions of culture and society.”

This exploration was further developed in an exhibition Nochlin curated at the Brooklyn Museum in 1975. Entitled “Women Artists: 1550-1950,” it provided a voice to female artists who were able to transcend the roles forced upon them.

Through Nochlin’s scholarship and engagement in boundary-pushing reinterpretations of the art history, those who had defied their restrictive conditions, and the canons of art history, were given much-deserved recognition. Nochlin, as Nesbit reflected, “Brought life to darkness…inducing a campaign to ask questions about representation and expand the ways in which sexuality is treated and discussed in works of art.”

Nochlin was not just a feminist scholar. Rather, she utilized all of her intellectual curiosity in the study of various realms of art history, and in particular realism and the work of French painter Gustave Courbet. In addition to her Art 105 lectures and senior seminars, she taught the equivalents of today’s Art 262 and 263. While a professor at Vassar, she lectured on Northern Baroque and 19th- and 20th-century works. Her collection of prose has received numerous accolades, and, as Professor Kuretsky noted, “She leaves us with an enormous legacy in her writings. You hear her…feel that she’s there.”

Her work and nature has inspired many individuals to pursue art history, including some of the professors teaching at Vassar today. As Professor Kuretsky remarked, “My first encounter with Linda was in this very room—mean undergraduate in the audience, she on stage giving Art 105 lectures that were of such power and brilliance that people used to sneak back in to hear her even after they had already taken the course. Linda has a way of reconstituting works of art in words with an arresting beauty and precision that is probably only possible for someone who writes poetry (she does this too) and who was also trained in literature and philosophy.”

Kuretsky continued, “When we later became colleagues in this department, her eloquence seemed even more dazzling…only now she had decided to give her Art 105 lectures without notes—the trapeze artist disdaining the net. Needless to say she was as spellbinding as ever.”

In the closing of her pioneering 1971 essay, Nochlin closes with an element of sagacity: “Us- ing as a vantage point their situation as under- dogs in the realm of grandeur, and outsiders in that of ideology, women can reveal institutional and intellectual weaknesses in general, and, at the same time that they destroy false consciousness, take part in the creation of institutions in which clear thought—and true greatness—are challeng- es open to anyone, man or woman, courageous enough to take the necessary risk, the leap into the unknown” (Art News, “From 1971: Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?,” 2015). And the rest is, well, history.

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