CAA Distinguished Scholar: Jules David Prown

Posted in books, the 18th century in the news by Editor on November 20, 2009

Jules David Prown, a devoted teacher of the history of American art and material culture and Paul Mellon Professor Emeritus of the History of Art at Yale University, has been selected as the CAA Distinguished Scholar for 2010. A special session in his honor will be held at the CAA annual conference in Chicago on 11 February 2010.

Bryan Wolf, professor of American art and culture at Stanford University, underscores the importance of Prown’s work in an essay for CAA, available through the association’s website:

John Singleton Copley, "Samuel Adams," ca. 1772 (Boston: MFA)

His remarkable career marks the coming of age of American art history. His two-volume study of the painter John Singleton Copley (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966) overturned the usual concerns of positivistic biography. His growing focus during the next several decades on the formal properties of objects, together with what he termed the system of cultural “belief” embedded within them, led to a methodological revolution that still resonates loudly in classrooms wherever American art and material culture are taught. . . .

Scholarship on American art in the 1960s tended to divide into two camps: those eager to claim an “American exceptionalism” for artists of virtually all eras of American history, and those determined to prove the former wrong, largely by tracing the European antecedents for traits otherwise labeled “American.” Prown’s two-volume Copley book, which grew from his dissertation on English Copley, coincided with the catalogue he authored for a comprehensive exhibition of Copley’s work at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Prown’s approach to Copley was to replace what in fact was a cold-war battle over American exceptionalism with science and statistics. He used a computer—I believe that he was the first art historian to do so—to “analyze data on 240 of Copley’s American sitters, correlating such factors as religion, gender, occupation, place of residence, politics, age, marital status, wealth, size of canvas, date, and medium.” An early paper he presented at CAA describing the project began with a slide of an IBM punch card. The audience “hissed,” as Prown later recounted, albeit with humorous intent. “The chairman of my department at the time advised me to remove the computer-analysis section from my book manuscript because its publication would jeopardize my chances for tenure.”

Yale UP, 2002 ($60)

The Copley book provided readers with a magisterial overview of this painter as a citizen of the British trans-Atlantic. Prown’s vision deftly sidestepped both sides of the American exceptionalism debate by insisting—decades before transnationalism would emerge as a focus of scholarly studies—on the complicated and hybrid relations between English-speaking cultures on either side of the Atlantic. . . .

For Wolf’s complete article (also available in the November 2009 issue of CAA News), click here»

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: