Profiles in Art: Rebecca Bedell

Rebecca Bedell is an Associate Professor of the Art of the United States, Art Department, Wellesley College.  Professor Bedell is author of The Anatomy of Nature: Geology and American Landscape Painting, 1825-1875 and the soon to be published Moved to Tears: Rethinking the Art of the Sentimental in the United States. She is also much beloved by the writers of this team for her instruction in our Disney & American Culture seminar as well as acting as the introductory Art History class that led several members of this team to continue pursuing our studies in the first place.

Q: What is your story? How did you fall in love with your current field of work/study?

I arrived at Wellesley in the fall of 1976 intending, like so many others before and since, to major in biology. I also signed up for ART 100, the introductory survey. Coming from a small high school in southern Illinois, I had no idea that art history existed as a discipline. But from the moment the great Miranda Marvin strode onto the stage of the darkened Jewett Auditorium and began talking about the art of ancient Egypt, I was hooked.

I did not give up on science.  I took biology courses through all four of my undergraduate years. My courses in “Ecology” and “Advanced Ecology” (what would likely be called “Environmental Science” today) did more to shape my understanding of the world than any other classes I have taken.

Both art and science continue to be central to my work. Much of my research from graduate school onward has centered on the intersection of art and science, with my first book exploring the relation between geology and landscape painting. Two years ago I developed a new course for Wellesley’s Environmental Studies Program: “Art and the Environmental Imagination,” a course that I hope to continue to teach in the coming years.


Q: What was your professional path like? How did you get to this job?

So many talented, accomplished scholars struggle in today’s job market, that I feel guilty that my path was so smooth. The year that I was completing my dissertation, my Wellesley advisor James O’Gorman was planning to go on leave and suggested that I apply to be his sabbatical replacement. I did. I was offered the job, and almost thirty years later I am still teaching in the department.


Q: What are the biggest challenges you faced at your job?

The greatest challenges were in my early years of teaching when I was attempting to balance motherhood and career. I recall too well the corrosive feeling that I had not enough energy and not enough hours to do either job as it should be done. Plus the enormous cost of childcare. That was hard.


Q: What are the greatest rewards of your job?

I have always felt extraordinarily fortunate in my job. I work every day with smart, engaged, ambitious students, stimulating colleagues, and supportive staff on one of the most beautiful campuses in the country. I am continuously learning, engaging ideas that transform and expand my understanding of the world. What could be better?


Q: What inspires you? What motivates you?
Sharing with and, I hope, inspiring in others something of the joy, the pleasures, the intellectual stimulation and gratification that I derive from the study of art.


Q: In your opinion, what is an under-researched topic in the field?

American Art, both the arts of the United States and, more broadly, the arts of the Americas, are such new fields, really launched in the 1970s and onwards, that there is untold work to be done, including in the relations among the continents’ cultures and countries.


Q: What advice would you give to young art historians just starting in the field?
Be bold. Be flexible. Learn as much as you can. Think both globally and locally. Learn languages.


Q: Your specialty centers around American Art and perhaps a bit on the American Identity. Has the recent socio-political climate changed your approach to teaching in any way?

I think the current climate has made me more keenly aware of the necessity of encouraging  and facilitating in the classroom the expression of diverse points of view, of listening to them respectfully, and of making certain that my own views do not circumscribe or suppress the expression of others.


Q: As you probably know, the new proposed federal budget eliminates funding for the National Endowment for the Arts as well as many other cultural/educational organizations. If you had to address the general public, why is arts/art history education important for the average American?

In the arts lie the very best of us: our passions, our creativity, our efforts to reach out to and touch others in moving, meaningful, and transformational ways.

Art History offers the knowledge and the critical skills that equip us to probe, analyze, make sense of and make meaningful the visual aspects of our environment.—not just paintings hanging on museum walls, but the buildings we walk past each day, the parks we visit, the spatial configurations of the places we inhabit, the digital advertisements that assault us all through the day.  Art history informs and heightens our visual senses. It offers us some measure of intellectual mastery in our encounters with visual culture, and, beyond that, in drawing us to art, opens to us a lifetime of deep pleasure.

RB in Richmon Bot Garden-back-2017

Just for fun…

Q: Can you recommend a wine (any alcohol/cocktail) and cheese (any drunk food) to us?
The most delicious wine I have ever had was a glass of Amarone at the beautiful Inn of the Anasazi in Sante Fe, New Mexico. I am not sure if it would have been quite so delicious in another spot.


Images provided to The Female Gaze by Rebecca Bedell


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