Beyond Vassar

Pioneering Art Historian Linda Nochlin '51 Honored for Distinguished Achievement

By Elizabeth Randolph

There is value in asking questions, but Vassar alumnae/i know that there is even greater value in examining the root of a question as a way of answering it critically. That is exactly what art historian and educator Linda Nochlin did when she wrote the seminal essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” for ARTnews magazine in 1971.

To the question of why there were no women equivalents for, say, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse, or de Kooning, Nochlin argued that the “elitist” structures on which art history is based had systematically excluded women artists, and that social and academic constraints had discouraged women’s pursuit of art-making. The groundbreaking essay dared to challenge both the chauvinistic notions of the male-dominated art world as well as emerging feminist viewpoints.

The article led to the 1976 exhibition “Women Artists: 1550-1950,” which Nochlin co-curated for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Nochlin further examined the issue of women artists when she presented her paper “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? Thirty Years Later” as part of the Princeton University conference “Women Artists at the Millennium” in 2001. Nochlin also co-curated the 2007 Brooklyn Museum exhibition “Global Feminisms,” which included the work of contemporary women artists from around the world.

Today, more than 40 years later, Nochlin’s unfettered 1971 interrogation remains relevant—the text is still taught and debated among scholars in art history, and women’s and gender studies.

Nochlin taught at Vassar between 1952 and 1980, eventually becoming the Mary Conover Mellon Professor of Art History at the college. Many alumnae/i remember the professor for her fierce intellect and her interest in the research and the intellectual growth of her students. Nochlin’s former student Nancy Harrison ’74 recalls: “From the moment the slides went up in her Art 105 lectures, I was mesmerized by Professor Nochlin’s brilliance, and her ability to look at a painting and explicate it from every possible angle. Her knowledge of how the larger cultural context informs a work of art, as well as her skill at deconstructing and unpacking the secrets and profundities of any object, and articulating these observations in such a nuanced way, absolutely captivated me.”

Harrison is senior fine art specialist at Fine Art Asset Management and Emigrant Bank Fine Art Finance; she previously worked as senior vice president and director of the 19th-Century European Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture Department at Sotheby’s. She says that Nochlin, her senior thesis adviser at Vassar, encouraged her to take a fresh look at the work and achievements of long reviled and neglected mid-to-late 19th-century Salon painters, in the context of the dynamic and rapidly changing era in which they worked. “It’s ironic that, some years later, 19th-century academic art would become my stock and trade,” she says.

Above, Nochlin sits next to a portrait by Philip Pearlstein (1968) showing her with her late husband, Richard Pommer.

Nochlin is currently the Lila Acheson Wallace Professor of Modern Art at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, where she earned her doctorate in art history in 1963. She has taught at Yale University and at the City University of New York, and she has written numerous books and articles. Her books Representing Women; The Body in Pieces; Women, Art, and Power and Other Essays; and The Politics of Vision have directed and expanded the dialogue among art historians on the nature of “viewing” and the role of art and artists in society. She also is known for her work on Gustave Courbet, as well as for seminal publications on Realism, Impressionism, and Post-Impressionism. Throughout her career, Nochlin has been the recipient of many honors and awards, including Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships. In a ceremony on February 10, the AAVC honored her with its Distinguished Achievement Award for her contributions to art scholarship and art education. The award is presented annually to an alumna or alumnus who has reached the highest level in her or his field.

On April 18, the Appraisers Association of America, the nation’s premier organization of fine art, antiques, and personal property appraisers—of which Nancy Harrison serves as president—will bestow upon Nochlin its Award for Excellence in the Arts during a gala luncheon at the New York Athletic Club.