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Prown’s Students Reflect on Prown

Above: George Henry Durrie, Summer Landscape, 1862. Oil on canvas, 22 1/4 x 30 1/8 inches. Gift of Martha C. Karolik for the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Paintings, 1815–1865, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 47.1261


Glenn Adamson, Senior Scholar, Yale University
Margaretta M. Lovell, Jay D. McEvoy Jr. Professor of American Art, University of California, Berkeley
Bryan J. Wolf, Jones Professor in American Art and Culture, Emeritus, Stanford University

Glenn Adamson

“A museum label should always encourage the visitor to look at the art work.” Perhaps this sounds like unsurprising advice. But when Jules Prown first said it to me—almost twenty years ago now—it immediately struck me as a quintessential and focused example of his thinking and teaching.

We are all familiar with the problem that Prown is addressing. A curator sits down to write a maximum of seventy words on one of the most important paintings in their institutional collection. But so many things crowd in. So many things need to be said. The artist’s biography, the work’s provenance and condition, the historical and political context in which it was made, the inspiration it provided to later artists: all doubtless important. How does one choose?

For Prown, the answer is clear: only convey information that can be verified by looking, or even better, information that enriches that looking. A museum gallery is not a classroom. Nor is it a book of essays, or a documentary film. It is a place of direct encounter. It is not that he has no regard for biography, provenance, conservation, or social context, of course. He has contributed greatly to the art historical study of all these issues, particularly in the fields of American and British art. But he feels, I think rightly, that when you are fortunate enough to be face to face with a work of art, you should give it your full and undivided attention.

As with most aspects of what has come to be called Prownian methodology, this is a deceptively simple principle with some complex theoretical conviction behind it. Everyone who has come into contact with Prown as a teacher will have been struck by his patience and intensity as a viewer. He asks his students to join him in extended acts of looking. This is not just for pleasure (indeed, given the short attention span of most students, it can be excruciating). He does it because he believes profoundly in the ability of art to deliver meaning from its own internal resources. Rather than validating an art work according to external theory or narratives, projecting on to its surface, he draws on the significance of the art work from within.

Prown is widely associated with the idea of art, and material culture in general, as evidence. This can be misconstrued to imply that he is involved in an elaborate process of pattern recognition, treating works as if they were data points, like Sherlock Holmes trying to build a case. But that is not his intention. There is doubtless an element of sleuthing in his methodology, and he prizes the breakthrough moments in which some aspect of an object or a painting is unlocked for interpretation. Yet these moments always seem more Sigmund Freud than Arthur Conan Doyle. I mean that he never wants to suggest that a work of art has been solved, that it can be fully accounted for as part of a larger scheme. Instead, he views art and objects as depth-charged, and susceptible to repeated readings from diverse perspectives. In the Prownian method, an art work is put to interpretive use, but it is never used up.

This stance has had a dramatic, and to my mind extremely positive, effect on the generations of art historians who have been touched by Prown’s teaching. The imaginative “reading in” that many of his students undertake is licensed, to some degree, by a confidence in art and its ability to absorb and generate numerous, possibly conflicting interpretations. Less obvious, perhaps, is his influence on museum practice. Speaking for myself, I can say that his consistent message to go back to the object has been extremely influential, and remarkably multivalent in its practical implications. But there are some basic principles that are easy enough to follow. While I have written many a museum label in my career, I have gradually come to feel that an exhibition should make perfect sense even to visitors who do not read a single word. And I also think he is correct in that text in a museum should essentially serve to re-engage the eyes of the viewer, and deflect them back to the work. This can be tough for curators who feel they have lots of information to convey, but ultimately, the most generous curatorial act in mounting an exhibition is not to impart information, it is to empower viewers to find their own meanings.

That is a democratic project for museums that goes far beyond labels and text panels. In our day and age, when curating is becoming a populist phenomenon (albeit mostly on social media like Instagram, rather than in galleries), it makes more sense than ever to let the art do the talking. All the more so if you agree with Prown, as I do, that everyday objects such as chairs and teapots are as compelling to interpretation as more obviously legible genres such as painting and sculpture. I have learned many lessons from him, but for my thinking as a curator, ultimately this is the most important: have faith. Encourage people to look, and then let the art perform its magic.


Margaretta M. Lovell

The American Studies program at Yale permitted candidates preparing for qualifying exams to design an interdisciplinary course as one of four examination fields, and I embraced the opportunity. I had taken an MA at Winterthur (unbeknownst to me, following in the footsteps of Jules Prown), and worked in the American Arts office at the Yale University Art Gallery for three years to support my growing family while starting the PhD program as a part-time student. Immersed in the world of objects—I explored not only the extraordinary works in the American tradition, but also Yale’s anthropology, natural history, and rare book collections—I read the work of Fernand Braudel and thought hard about the relationship of objects to the interpretation of the past and the present. I noticed that few academics in any discipline sought to read objects to answer significant questions—how did patriarchy work? How did attitudes toward time shift and how did these assumptions affect daily life? It seemed to me that these vast collections were an untapped laboratory for humanities research and thinking; they could help answer questions like these. To most of my peers in literary studies, history, philosophy, and even anthropology, objects seemed beside the point. Insofar as they were legible, they believed that objects could not be coaxed into providing evidence about important issues. I wanted to explore exactly that presumption, and devised a course entitled Art and Artifacts: The Interpretation of Objects that focused on theories of interpretation and methods of analysis that put objects in the frame of serious humanities research. My interest was not just in ideas per se, but also in the nitty-gritty of materials and fabrication techniques, and the global markets that resulted in culturally-specific (and often culturally-hybrid) objects—art objects, but also machines, vernacular structures, food, clothing, and tools.

My examiners liked the idea of the course and I was asked to teach it the following year, and was appointed to the faculty in art history. A substantial budget enabled me to bring in object-theorists of all kinds—Yi-Fu Tuan, Henry Glassie, Cary Carson, and others. It was a large auditorium-filling course for undergraduates but it also attracted a substantial enrollment of graduate students. Because I had not finished (or indeed started) my dissertation, I could not grade the graduate students, so Charles Montgomery, professor of American art and my former boss at the Yale University Art Gallery, was brought on board to co-teach the course with me. Unfortunately, halfway through the semester, quite suddenly, Montgomery died, and Jules Prown was asked to shepherd the Art and Artifacts graduate students’ research projects. He decided that he really liked the idea of the course and that summer set us both to reading even more widely and revising the syllabus. We co-taught the course each year until I left for California three years later. His 1982 essay “Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method,” grew out of this evolving experiment in pedagogy.

After we had taught Art and Artifacts (later Material Culture) together for two years—during which I was also learning-by-teaching the history of American painting, revising the venerable American Decorative Arts course, and co-teaching the penultimate seminars in the interdisciplinary History, Arts and Letters program—I finished my dissertation. When I heard that Jules Prown would be a reader, I quickly went back and inserted puns wherever possible as I had learned in the course of our teaching together that he liked puns as much as he disliked split infinitives, and I wanted to enliven his experience of my heavily-literary text.

There were two reasons our teaching meshed well—we were both skeptical of the customary art historical privileging of a quest for sources, influences, and artistic genius, and we both wanted to find ways to slow down and deepen the process of intellectual engagement with objects. Jules devised his now well-known three-step approach to objects—especially art objects—to give students a systematic way of approaching and inhabiting artworks, one that validated, even invited, a presentist approach. Attending to the object in itself, bleached of context and the interference of assumptions at the outset of inquiry, was a process familiar to me. As an English language and literature major late in the era of New Criticism, I had been taught to read a poem as an intricate and complete thing, independent of the entanglements of biography and historic context. My own preference in forestalling students’ tendency to leap toward an answer, a solution, a decoding with source hunting, has been to start them with an interrogative exercise: I ask them to compose a sequence of twenty thoughtful questions prompted by close analysis of the object, its parts, and the associations it prompts. I also ask them to draw. My two years at the Ruskin School of Art in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford where I was given the same art education as the nineteenth-century artists I would later study—perfected drawings of plaster casts of antique sculpture followed by life class, still life, and landscape—taught me the value of really looking at an object or a posed figure in order to understand and render it with accuracy, curiosity, and insight.

After the questions, for me, come the secondary sources for clues to interesting misunderstandings, and then, with significant historical issues in view, the archives. The Annales School and New Historicism reintroduced the richness of context and its potential for improving our understanding eras and objects. Here, an amplitude of primary documents of all kinds—letters, newspapers, popular visual culture, census reports—begin to speak to those other primary sources, those seemingly obdurate and mute object sets, and become evidence in larger arguments concerning significant questions in social and cultural history.

I have continued to teach Material Culture as a graduate seminar, most recently co-teaching it with my sinologist colleague Patricia Berger. While most art historians venture into social, cultural, economic, religious, or political history to better understand the object under scrutiny, I was (and continue to be) eager to reverse this process, that is, to look at objects—and necessarily sets of objects—to better understand the culture in which they were created. Moreover, I have become increasingly interested in object biographies, the downstream life of objects, the new narratives they acquire as subsequent generations keep and radically re-understand them. They become windows not only on the generation of their makers, their patrons, and the resources (intellectual and material) involved in their creation, but also on those subsequent cultures, eras, and peoples that have revalued and reimagined them into entirely disparate narratives.

But having said that, I am afraid I cannot say that I have developed a teachable system. Exactly how one’s probing curiosity hits on the question that cannot be well asked or answered without object evidence, I cannot say. One can only set up the conditions that may be rewarded by looking carefully, thinking interrogatively, reading widely, and plunging courageously ahead. Of the lessons from those early years teaching with Jules, the two with greatest impact on me and my teaching have been: first, slow down, and second, embrace co-teaching whenever offered.


Bryan J. Wolf

Imagine a large Connecticut farmhouse with a yard like a greensward that undulates gently towards the horizon. There is a woodlot off to one side, and pastures—the remains of an older farming community—across the road. The air buzzes with summer sounds: laughter, conversation, a border collie barking, and what seems like an endless supply of children running around as if the world had just been created. To refine the picture further, add several colonial era portraits and landscapes along the interior walls, and a spacious country kitchen with a large central table, the true command post of the house.

I have just described Jules Prown’s teaching philosophy. It begins with a spirited embrace of everyday life in all its untidiness, and it includes a sense of history defined by the presentness of the past (and the persistence of both). It also includes a love of technology, an empirical habit of mind, a fondness for bad puns, and a relentless commitment to the powers of the eye. It requires, on the part of Prown’s students, an ability to translate what you see into what you say: to talk about images as if they were lifelong friends—sometimes predictable, often surprising, and always rewarding.

Jules Prown was my dissertation advisor. He was also my colleague, my friend, and a co-teacher for two years in a seminar that we jointly taught on American Romanticism and Realism. He was the realist and I was the romanticist, which largely means that he anchored the discussions of Copley, Homer, and Eakins, while I toyed with the likes of Cole and Quidor. Those were a very special two years for me. I learned from him how profoundly Socratic all true teaching is, and how rich and unfathomable images—even the most talked about—can be.

I also learned that he is really a barely reconstructed New Critic. He was an English major in college, and his instinct for close reading, which developed over time into a visually-based procedure that his students fondly call “the Prown Method,” owes a great deal to a literary tradition that proclaimed with almost religious fervor that a “poem should not mean but be.”1 The same might be said for his notion of images, only he insists—as a fundament of his pedagogy—that whatever meanings an image holds must be brought into language in order, pragmatically speaking, to make a difference. From Prown I learned that a painting resembles a patient lying on a psychoanalytic couch, not because you attempt, over and over, to analyze it, but because you insist that it talk to you endlessly in a process that creates or invents meanings as it unfolds.

Here is another way to describe the Prown teaching philosophy. One summer in the 1980s, when I was in my early years as an assistant professor, my wife and I visited Jules in Vermont, where he often worked (and continues to do so today) when he is not ensconced in his office in New Haven. He was writing at the time his field-changing Winterthur Portfolio essays on material culture, and he was also tinkering, when not writing, with the maple sugaring facilities on his farm. He suggested that we tour the farm by hopping onto—actually, into—the front loader of a tractor that he drove. He then lifted us many feet above the ground, as if we were so many bales of hay, and proceeded to tour us for the next hour through his woodlot and fields. They looked especially magical from our vantage ten feet above the ground. Prown’s teaching philosophy resembles that tractor ride: lift them up, open their eyes, ask them to look.

It was a classic performance: playful, sure and instructive. And it echoed with remarkable precision his practice in the classroom. He wears many hats as a teacher, but two in particular stand out: those of tour guide and quester. The former leads to an ever-deepening plunge through the many layers structuring an image, while the latter draws on his deepest pedagogic instincts: interrogating an object by talking about it with students, colleagues, and others around him. And then, when all seems said, talking about it some more.

Scholarship on American art in the 1960s tended to divide into two camps: those eager to claim 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.2 Prown’s two-volume Copley book, which grew from his dissertation on English Copley, replaced 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 the College Art Association describing the project began with a slide of an IBM punch card. The audience “hissed,” as Jules 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.”

The Copley volumes provided readers with a magisterial overview of Copley as a citizen of the British transatlantic. 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. His goal was not to deny characteristics that might be considered uniquely American, but to ground them in a rich—and scientifically supported—account of the ways that local situations nest themselves within larger international currents.

The Copley study had another imperative driving it. The book provided American art history with a genealogy, a “foreground somewhere” that said, in effect, this is where the story begins. It lent the history of American art a clear narrative arc at a moment when the flowering of American art tended to be considered a product of the twentieth century, the triumph of Jackson Pollock and Abstract Expressionism. The Copley volumes pushed that conversation back two centuries, planting American art firmly in the soil of the eighteenth century, and in the process, providing students of American art with a new way to imagine their own scholarly narratives. Prown argued that “The essential character and strength of American art is not the result of independence from the Western artistic heritage: rather it results from the intense, almost greedy, drive on the part of American artists to absorb as much of that heritage as possible while at the same time, with enterprise and ingenuity, transmuting it into artistic statements that are distinctively, if not always consciously, American.”

Those four ultimate words, “if not always consciously,” would grow over time into the engine that would drive Prown’s innovative art history. They led to a vision of objects as survivors from the past with a tale to tell. The language for understanding that tale was the language of form. He accommodated the formalism that dominated so much of art historical discourse in the years after World War II by lending it historical heft. The internal elements of a painting or artifact created something more than an abstracted system of colors, forms, and textures. They embodied the voices of the past. “If not always consciously” came to mean the hidden ways that history speaks through the objects that survive it.

When I think back now to the party for Jules’ graduate students that day in June, I see one other aspect of his teaching that I might not have appreciated fully at the time. His students form an extended family: they are never merely scholars-in-training or anonymous, squirming bodies surrounding a seminar table. They are part and parcel of his life: interlocutors, friends, fellow travelers. They are not permitted to call him “Mr. Prown” or “Dr. Prown” or even “Professor.” He is always “Jules” to his students, and they know, in pronouncing his name, that they are talking to him from a position of intimacy and trust.

What, then, might we say of Jules’ teaching philosophy? Only this: that it is a version of seeing through history: “seeing” because it is about the ways that perception, when properly trained, leads us to the hidden life of objects; “through” because nothing is ever what it seems to be at first sight; and “history” because seeing is never innocent: it always drags a portion of the past with it. For Jules, uncovering that past and speaking thoughtfully about it is what true pedagogy is all about.



  1. From “Ars Poetica” in Archibald MacLeish (New York: Twayne, 1965), 41. The poem was originally published in 1925 with reference to Imagism.
  2. Portions of my remarks have been adapted from an earlier piece in CAA News, November, 2010.