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Vol.25, No. 05 Oct. 1, 1999

Barnard Honors Barbara Novak at Art History Symposium on Oct. 2

Barbara Novak, widely recognized as one of the most influential theorists of American art, will be honored by Barnard College at an Oct. 2 symposium titled, "The Nature of American Art."

During her 40 years at Barnard, her interdisciplinary scholarship changed the study of American art. She joined Barnard's art history department in 1958 and retired in 1998 as the Helen Goodhart Altschul Professor Emerita.

"The study of American Art has been decisively shaped by Barbara Novak's publications and teaching," said Keith Moxey, professor of art history and acting chair of the department. "As a pioneering figure in the field, her vision helped establish it as a legitimate focus of academic interest. At Barnard and Columbia she inspired generations of students to study their national culture. Many of them have gone on to brilliant careers in academic or museum life."

She received the distinguished Teaching of Art History Award from the College Art Association in 1998.

In describing her contribution, the association characterized Novak as, "A spirited and inspired scholar, with two ground-breaking studies, American Painting of the 19th Century (1969) and Nature and Culture (1980), [who] helped to infuse the study of American art with new life and new academic rigor and respectability."

Sponsored by the president, provost and department of art history at Barnard, the Oct. 2 symposium will be held at 10 a.m. in Barnard's Julius S. Held Lecture Hall. It will be moderated by Annette Blaugrund, director of the National Academy of Design at the Museum and School of Fine Arts, and Linda S. Ferber, Andrew W. Mellon Curator of American Art at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

The symposium includes the following talks:

• "What's in a Name?" by John H. Davis, Priscilla Paine Van der Poel Professor of Art History, Smith College;

• "The Pragmatics of the Aesthetic," by Giles Gunn, professor of English and global and international studies, UC-Santa Barbara;

• "Private Indignation, Public Indifference: the Reception of Thomas Eakins's Late Portraits," by Marisa Keyyem, an independent scholar in New York City;

• "Reel Seeing: Film, Painting, and Graphicacy," by Katherine E. Manthorne, professor of art of the Americas, CUNY;

• "Letting Science Slide: Luminism and Luminescence in Thoreau and American Painters of Vision," by Barton Levi St. Armand, professor of English and American civilization, Brown.

Mary Ann Calo, author of Critical Issues in American Art (1998), wrote that Novak was one of a group of pioneers including Jules Prown and Theodore Stebbins, among others, who "began in the late 1950s and 1960s to map the still largely virgin American field, particularly the nineteenth century."

A later book, Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting, 1825-1875, (1980, revised 1995), was described as "the most important contribution to the understanding of nineteenth-century American art that has been written in our generation" by John I. H. Baur of the Whitney Museum of American Art. In Nature and Culture, Novak argued that in the period between 1825 and 1875, landscape painters represented the "widespread belief that America's natural riches were God's blessings on a chosen people." Painting, therefore, could not be studied without understanding their wider role: "The unity of nature bespoke the unity of God. The unity of man with nature assumed an optimistic attitude toward human perfectibility. Thus the landscape painters, the leaders of this national flock, could remind the nation of divine benevolence and of a chosen destiny by keeping before their eyes the mountains, trees, forests, and lakes which revealed the world in each shining image."

For more information about the symposium, please call Barnard's department of art history (212) 854-2118.