Scholar Profile: Mary Sheriff

Posted in interviews, Member News by jfmit18th on July 18, 2010

To introduce some of the names and faces of HECAA, Craig and I have decided to begin a new Enfilade series that will profile scholars from diverse institutions and varying areas of expertise. We hope that this will not only illustrate the wealth of knowledge shared among the HECAA community at large but also provide individualized snapshots of upcoming projects, common interests, and new directions of research. If you would like to nominate someone to be interviewed or share thoughts on the series, we would be happy to hear from you; send an email to jennifer.ferng@gmail.com.

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Mary Sheriff is the W.R. Kenan, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Art History and Department Chair at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research focuses on eighteenth and nineteenth-century art and culture, with an emphasis on issues of creativity, sexuality, gender, and most recently, travel and cultural exchange. She has published three books with the University of Chicago Press J.-H. Fragonard: Art and Eroticism (1990), The Exceptional Woman: Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun and the Cultural Politics of Art (1996), and Moved by Love: Inspired Artists and Deviant Women in Eighteenth-Century France (2004). This spring, her edited collection of essays, Cultural Contact and the Making of European Art, was published by the University of North Carolina Press.

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Jennifer Ferng: You were awarded the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship earlier this year. Has this acknowledgment validated, sustained, or altered certain conceptions of what you believed about your approaches to the study of art history? What has this recognition personally meant to you?

MS: The fellowship could not have come at a better time. I have just completed seven years as department chair, and I am anxious to devote myself full-time to writing. The fellowship and the time off it represents means that I can now return to my research—which is what brought me to the profession in the first place! Administration was an afterthought and, unfortunately, a necessary evil.

I think the recognition of my work has helped me see that the discipline of art history, like other disciplines, has not only become more open to different approaches and methods, but also to work that engages and interprets material traditionally thought to be outside the domain of the discipline. I’m thinking here not only of diverse texts (novels, plays, travel writing, science treatises, etc.) but also of, for example, material culture, theatrical and operatic performance, contemporary theory. At the same time, I believe that art historians are now more open to different forms of interpretation.

JF: How do you feel eighteenth-century studies has recently changed (in relation to other sub-fields including feminist studies, material culture, and visual culture studies)?

MS : Let me answer this question from a slightly different angle. What I think has changed most about the field of eighteenth-century studies in art history is the number of practitioners. Two decades ago there were precious few of us in the sub-field and even fewer of us in ASECS. New scholars have brought into the field many different perspectives, approaches, and even disciplinary formations – and many of those perspectives, approaches, and formations have mirrored the changes in the discipline at large. Although some of the new scholars studied with those eighteenth-century specialists who had already changed the field – many others did not. When I and others entered the field it was a risk, and I believe it still is. Twenty years ago there was no recognized specialization in «Eighteenth-Century Art» and I think today the CAA categories of specialization still jump from «Baroque» to «Nineteenth-Century».

Now to take things from a different direction: I think that because we were never a venerable old field (like Renaissance Studies), we did not have venerable old ways of doing things; nor did we have the issues that arise from what I might call dynastic succession. So as a field, we have been able to change and adapt more easily to the changes in the discipline. I also like to believe – although it may be a personal myth – that folks who take the risk of specializing in the eighteenth century are also willing to take risks in their work – by which I mean they are willing to use a novel approach, ask a new question, interpret a «frivolous» object, bring together different archives of knowledge, and ultimately to admit the contingency of meaning.

JF: What are some of your upcoming projects and some of the new directions you will be pursuing?

MS: My new project is entitled Enchanted Islands: Picturing the Allure of Conquest in Eighteenth-Century France. I have been working on issues of cultural contact for a while now in my teaching and research. I’ve edited a volume just out from UNC Press called Cultural Contact and the Making of European Art, which is actually designed to be a complementary text for teaching the history of Western art. The volume has essays that range in time from 1429 to 1930, and all the essay consider the effects of cultural contact – from oppressive colonialism to mutually profitable trade – on European art. The volume argues that European art has always been shaped from the outside as well as from the inside, and is never a «pure product». The authors include ASECS members Christopher Johns and Elisabeth Fraser, as well as Claire Farago, Julie Hochstrasser, Carol Mavor, and Lyneise Williams.

My new project on enchanted islands develops in different ways issues of cultural contact and continues my studies of gender and sexuality, in this case as related to royal power and «Frenchness». The «allure of conquest» I mean as both martial and sexual. As the title of the project also suggests, I am interested in the hold that islands and «island-ness» have had on the Western (and especially French eighteenth-century) imagination. The project focuses on a particular sort of island imagined to be ruled by an enchantress, which is a staple of epic literature. A prime example is the island of the Saracen sorceress Armida in Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered. The story of Rinaldo and Armida on the enchanted island was represented repeatedly in painting, opera, book illustration, and the decorative arts throughout the eighteenth century. Armida’s island is particularly significant for me because it is at once an enchanted, real, and mythical space. Tasso places Armida’s realm in what he calls the Fortunate Islands, which we know as the Canary Islands, and which were in antiquity the imagined site of the Elysian Fields. The whole project, in fact, takes up the larger questions of how mythical paradigms are mapped onto real persons and spaces; how real persons and spaces engender mythical paradigms; how paradigms change over time; and to what ends such paradigms are deployed.

What’s newer, perhaps, is that this project also engages with notions of «enchantment» as a feature of art, love, power, and magic. I’m interested in how the relation between art and enchantment was theorized in the eighteenth century and how it has been theorized today, especially in the work of anthropologist Alfred Gell.

I am also involved in a new project co-authored with Melissa Hyde, currently entitled French Women Artists: Rococo to Romanticism. We envision a book that will be not only a collective history of women artists from the mid-eighteenth century through the mid-nineteenth century, but also a history that considers these artists within their social, personal, institutional, and professional networks. In other words, this project is a history focused on women artists, but one that presents the art world as peopled by women and men together. Histories of that period in French art inevitably focus on select male painters and thus present what one could call the one-sex model. Our history contests that model by putting women back into the picture.

JF: Regarding pedagogical techniques inside and outside the classroom, how do you encourage your graduate students to pursue individual research and dissertation topics? What are some outstanding areas of unstudied eighteenth-century art?

MS: From the beginning of their studies, I encourage my students to find their own areas of special interest. I see my job not as telling them what to pursue but as helping them get where they want to go. My graduate seminars often define an area of research very broadly and offer as group reading some basic theoretical material. I ask students to find their own specialized topics within that area. I stress that finding a good topic is half the game of writing an outstanding essay – and by a good topic I mean one that is both focused and complex: one that can sustain different avenues of interpretation while remaining coherent. Of course, this is a tall order, especially for first-year students, but I meet with them and try to guide them toward an appropriate topic once I know their interests. And I will dissuade them if I think a topic is unworkable. I often suggest focusing on a single object or image that will open itself up to different interpretative strategies or that seems to condense several contemporaneous aesthetic and/or cultural issues.

There is so much understudied in the eighteenth century that I can hardly begin to prioritize. But in no particular order. . . Religious art and ecclesiastical architecture need sustained attention (this is especially true for French art). There are individual artists whose work deserves more study even though the monograph seems to be out of fashion; I’m sure everyone has his or her list, but mine would include Falconet and Meissonnier. France, England, and to a lesser extent Italy are fairly well worked – at least for major artists – but how about Sweden, Russia, and other areas in Europe?

Among the subjects that are the focus of current work, I think that there are many areas of material culture that need attention (here a personal favorite would be the miniature and the idea of miniaturization). Cultural contact in all its forms is now getting attention, but there is still a lot of work to be done. I would also like to see more work on optical devices and displays such as phantasmagoria and magic lanterns. I would add that while we are interrogating these newer areas, we should not ignore all the other, perhaps more traditional, areas of eighteenth-century art that also need work.

JF: In looking back at your development as a senior scholar, who and what were some of the most influential intellectuals and books, which affected the ongoing evolution of your ideas?

MS : I have from the beginning been influenced by my mentor, Barbara Stafford, not so much in terms of any particular method, but in terms of her openness to new ideas, her omnivorous intellectual tastes, and her willingness to let her students go their own way. When I was a beginning assistant professor, and especially in my first years at UNC, I read voraciously in high French theory and French feminist theory, often in informal reading groups with colleagues from art history, literature, languages, and history. We read all the usual suspects – Barthes, Foucault, Lacan, Derrida, Irigaray, Cixous – but we also read the likes of Plato and Augustine for the history of ideas. Over the years I’ve been inspired and influenced by ongoing exchanges with colleagues and students, and participating in ASECS has been extremely important to me as a venue for the exchange and sharing of ideas.

JF: Back in Chapel Hill, what object that you own describes you best as a personality and scholar?

MS: My buoyancy control device (or BCD). I love to scuba dive. Diving is a very visual activit ; the way I dive there is a lot of looking at all sorts of interesting and beautiful things, so it feeds my scopophilia. There is a lot of diversity on the reef, so I like that, and I learn a lot by just observing. The reef is truly another world – for me an enchanted world. Diving, moreover, is an activity that offers solitude and quiet, which is how I work best. No email, no mobile phone, only the sound of your breathing and, for equipment, a computer that tells you how deep you are and a gauge that registers how much air you have left! But at the same time, since in diving you are always with a buddy, there is solitude but not loneliness. I like the physical challenge of diving and buoyancy control. And I like that diving means I am on a real vacation. Too many academics only take busman’s holidays. I think that’s a mistake. I need down time to do my work.

JF: What are some of your favorite places to visit while in Paris, whether for work or leisure?

MS: Musée des arts décoratifs (and the café there), Les Gobelins, Bagatelle gardens and especially the rose garden, Arsenal Library, Club Med Gym, Le Sirocco (my favorite Moroccan resto); any church that’s open and uncrowded.

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