Department of Art and Art History Art History

Q+A with Shelby Johnston, undergraduate in Art History

Thu. January 28, 2016

woman poses for photograph in front of scenic view
Johnston on the Palazzo Piccolomini Loggia in Pienza

How did you learn about the Undergraduate Research Fellowship and what was the process of applying like for you? Did you have a clear idea of what you wanted to do?

Shelby Johnston: Dr. Ann Johns, my thesis adviser, recommended I apply for the Undergraduate Research Fellowship. In addition, I discussed the process with Jessica Thompson, an art history major who had received the fellowship the prior year. In August I started on the application. I had a very clear idea of what I wanted to do and needed to see how that corresponded with my thesis, which helped me in the application process.

Photograph of Italian landscape
The view of the hanging gardens from the Palazzo Piccolomini Loggia. In the way background Mont' Amiata is covered with fog in Pienza.

What sites or artifacts were most important for you to visit? How does the in-person experience of your research topics change or influence your ideas?

SJ: I was in Siena, Italy for the majority of my trip, but I also took a day trip to Pienza. The sites that were the most important for me to see were the Piccolomini Library, which is located in Siena’s Duomo, the façade in Piccolomini Square, and the Palazzo Piccolomini in Pienza.

My senior thesis is on Pope Pius II and his legacy in Siena and how his patronage affected the city. The in-person experience is so different from researching online and looking at photos from books. Art History and art historical research so heavily relies on the visual aspect of things and being able to see Pius II’s projects as well as the Piccolomini Library in person greatly benefited my thesis research, especially since Pius describes all of his projects in his Commentarii. There are certain details that you cannot retain from seeing a photo or reading about a place. Being able to actually walk around these places you can make your own observations and that can influence your ideas. Pius II’s descriptions have more meaning now that I have seen some of the places he describes. For example Pius II describes the view of Mount Amiata from the Palazzo Piccolomini loggia in Pienza and compares it to Petrarch’s Mont Ventoux. If I had not seen this view myself how could I truly understand Pius II’s inspiration?

christmas tree by sculpture of man in courtyard
Piazza Salimbeni in Siena decorated for Christmas (I was there the week before Christmas).

What was the funniest or most surprising experience during your travel?

SJ: Well, Italy is always bound to be an adventure. When traveling there during the off-season not as many restaurants are open and different sites and buses don’t have their normal hours. Probably the most surprising thing that happened occurred on a day trip from Siena to Pienza. Normally the bus first stops outside of Pienza and then again in the square just outside the medieval gate. Of course it being the off-season the bus did not make its second stop.

By the time we were leaving Pienza I realized the bus wasn’t stopping and ended up getting out at the next stop and spending that day in Montepulciano instead. However, this mishap turned into a wonderful day nonetheless. We met Adamo the owner of Cantina Contucci who is featured in Rick Steves’ travel books on Italy. He was delightful and gave us a personal tour of his winery.

fresco of man shaking hand of woman with battle in background
The fresco Meeting Between Frederick III and Eleanor of Aragon and Canonization of Saint Catherine from the Piccolomini Libraryin Siena. Pius II is the figure in the center.
 
What's next for you in this upcoming semester?

SJ: I will finish writing my senior thesis “Pope Pius II: The Building of a Legacy in Siena” and present it at the Undergraduate Art History Symposium in April.
 

The American School: Artists and Status in the Late Colonial and Early National Era by Susan Rather

Thu. January 28, 2016

brown book jacket with bio, image, spine, and front cover art

The American School: Artists and Status in the Late Colonial and Early National Era

What did it mean to be an American artist in the 18th- and early-19th-century transatlantic world? In this first comprehensive art-historical study of the subject, Susan Rather examines the status of artists from different geographical, professional, and material perspectives: portrait painting in Boston and London, the trade of art in Philadelphia and New York, the negotiability and usefulness of colonial American identity in Italy and London, and the shifting representation of artists in and from the former British colonies after the Revolutionary War, when London remained the most important cultural touchstone. The book interweaves nuanced analysis of well-known artists (John Singleton Copley, Benjamin West, and Gilbert Stuart, among others) with accounts of non-elite painters and ephemeral texts and images such as painted signs and advertisements, all well represented in this richly illustrated book. Throughout, Rather questions the validity of the term "American,” which she sees as provisional—the product of an evolving, multifaceted cultural construction.

Susan Rather is professor of Art History at The University of Texas at Austin. This book was published by Yale University Press in association with the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art.
 

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