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.

◊  ◊  ◊  ◊  ◊

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.

◊  ◊  ◊  ◊  ◊

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.

7 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Michael Yonan said, on July 19, 2010 at 2:03 pm

    What a wonderful interview. I can vouch firsthand for the effectiveness of Mary’s seminar techniques. Instead of choosing focused 18C subjects for them, they tended to be framed around broad categories–‘The Self-Portrait’, ‘Art and Theater’, etc. We would read some theoretical works to get discussion going, after which we then applied our thinking to very diverse, individually oriented subjects. It worked beautifully; the quality of the work tended to be high and everyone felt that they were working toward their own personal scholarly advancement. Such experiences were light years way from the more microscopically focused seminars that traditionally characterize our discipline.

    Craig has in the past put forward the hope that we engage in a little more dialogue on Enfilade. I realize it is late July and many people are not at their desks, but a good topic for discussion might be Mary’s observation that the field of 18C art history was once at risk and remains so. I wonder if people agree with that assessment, and if so, why. I have some thoughts, but will hold back for now….

  2. enfilade18thc said, on July 21, 2010 at 2:55 am

    Thanks, Michael, for the first-hand account (I think it’s immensely interesting whenever teachers and students are able to assess what happened in the classroom together). A student’s perspective nicely rounds out this interview that I, too, found fascinating (my thanks to Jennifer for taking the initiative; the piece is entirely hers).

    Thanks, too, for the prompt regarding the degree to which 18th-century studies (esp in terms of art history) finds itself at risk (then or now). I hope others take up the question. I can certainly chime in with one or two ideas, though I’ll wait to do so. Here, I would just preface any remarks with the following: it may be difficult to assess 18th-century studies at a time when art history, the humanities, and colleges/universities generally are all facing a challenging moment. On the other hand, the current economic climate probably puts more pressure on us to make the case for the importance of the period.

    But back to Michael’s question: what do you think? Just how risky is the period?


  3. Eugenia Zuroski Jenkins said, on July 21, 2010 at 6:31 pm

    I’m interested in the perspective of art historians on how increased interdisciplinary attention to traditional subjects of art history is affecting the field. On the literary side of the fence, we’re seeing an explosion of interest in material culture and hence the scholarship of art historians. I’m currently finishing up a book manuscript in which I cite as many works of art history as of literary criticism (including Michael’s!). But is this kind of cross-disciplinary attention always welcome? Is there some danger to the specificity of of a disciplinary field when people trained in different methodologies start rushing in?

    Incidentally, my university’s graduate program in art history just narrowly escaped being dismantled as of this year, and will probably not survive the administrative campaign to scrap it much longer. It’s a terrible shame, especially when we have a wonderful art museum right on campus. I think that the general crisis being felt across the humanities is particularly perilous for those fields and programs already in an ambivalent state.

  4. melanie cooper-dobbin said, on July 22, 2010 at 3:38 am

    I am a current phD candidate in art history, specializing in the eighteenth-century, and I also wrote a Master’s thesis in this field in a University within a very small art history department, where most students seem to be attracted to Asian , Indigenous Australian, Modern or Contemporary Art. I am sure it is different in other centres, but I do find myself defending the 18th century in very broad and general terms all the time! (I feel like a bit of a loner sometimes!) But I also have had people responding with interest to ideas I have brought up, for example, in tutorials I run with students. My approach is also very cross-disciplinary, and I think this is a very exciting methodology which not everyone ‘gets’ right away, but I do think this will change over time…. I do think the interdisciplinary approach is a vital one, defiantely.
    I also think blogs like enfilade provide a crucial and dynamic tool for networking and research, and keeping the community of 18th century scholars and enthusiasts connected and alive… I do see the web as becoming more and more vital to ensuring the survival of all things humanities related, actually (as much as I resisted technology before I realized this)

  5. douglasfordham said, on July 22, 2010 at 3:47 am

    Many thanks to Jennifer and Mary for a wonderful interview, and what is a fantastic new component of Enfilade. Mary notes the dramatic growth in 18th C studies over the years and I take this as a promising sign, despite a general crisis facing the humanities. One tangible shift in the periodization of art history is that the 18th C is now frequently grouped with the 19th C ( at conferences, in job searches, etc…) as the field of 20th C and contemporary art has ballooned. Indeed, I’ve heard a statistic that more graduate students are now working on topics from 1900 to the present than in all other art historical periods combined. I wonder if Baroque art is not the more endangered subfield, currently?

  6. Michael Yonan said, on July 22, 2010 at 3:48 pm

    Well, I’m getting impatient, so I’ll get the ball rolling!

    There’s the risk of specializing in a field traditionally deemed marginal, frivolous, or unimportant, and when university administrators set their priorities for funding, 18C art may not be high on their list. Even within the art history proper, departments have historically privileged other historical periods over the 18C. If lines need to be cut, the period deemed expendable might very likely be ours.

    On the other hand, we 18C folk have done a terrific job of infiltrating positions not originally intended for us. My first post-PhD job was listed as a 19C/20C specialist, and I know several colleagues who have similar stories. The field has grown so much that the risks of specializing in it are less pressing today than they were in the 1990s.

    I think there’s a bigger risk facing the field right now, one that paradoxically has come with greater prominence and a larger community of practitioners. There is now more pressure on the 18C to become canonical, to form a standard narrative, and to homogenize. I definitely sense this at conferences and I think it is a major danger. Part of the glory of the 18C is that it resists simplification into a succession of periods or styles, or for that matter simple geographical particularization. It’s impossible to teach the period (I think anyway) without talking about architecture, ceramics, prints, furniture, painting and sculpture all together. What happens artistically in England is light years away from developments in Bavaria or Spain. It’s a messy century, but that messiness is the best thing about it. I worry that as more people work on the field, a firmer canon will materialize, and that that will make the field less open and interesting. I don’t want 18C art to become like 19C art, which has essentially become a field of ten or so major painters who receive the overwhelming majority of scholarly attention.

    Food for thought, I hope… I have some thoughts on Eugenia’s post, too, but will let other people have a chance…

  7. enfilade18thc said, on July 27, 2010 at 1:38 am

    Thanks to Eugenia, Melanie, Michael, and Douglas — all interesting comments/observations.

    In connection with general observations about the status of 18th-century vis-a-vis other areas and the larger field of art history, I noticed the following panel for CAA in New York (as noted in the July issue of CAA News).


    The Crisis in Art History: CAA Board–Sponsored Session

    There is a widespread sense that the current situation in art history reveals a discipline in crisis. There are many different interpretations of the causes of this crisis—and just as many possible solutions. In this session, a number of art historians working in different areas will make brief presentations on how the field of art history looks to them. Issues will include, among others, the appearance or disappearance of various subfields of art history; the predominance of contemporary art in graduate schools; the constriction of the job market; and the influence of intellectualproperty laws on publishing. For more information, please contact Patricia Mainardi, of the Graduate Center, City University of New York, at pmainardi@gc.cuny.edu.


    Personally, I’m a bit skeptical of the ‘crisis’ alarm (it seems to get sounded a lot); on the other hand, I’m also inclined to appreciate the degree to which things are worrisome on lots of fronts. And if we really are in for a crisis, I like the idea that one shouldn’t ‘waste a crisis’. It just seems all the more important that we’re able to make the case for why the eighteenth century matters.

    Interesting that this CAA session isn’t framing the dilemma in methodological terms (the ‘crisis’ of the ‘New Art History’ of the 1980s and 90s) but much more pragmatic terms.


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 )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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