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Art history celebrates 50 years

Art history celebrates 50 years

Photo by Kevin Quinlan

Department of Art History marks a milestone in teaching, scholarship

In the early 1960s, before the University of Delaware’s art historians even had a department of their own, their numbers were so small that they could hold a faculty meeting when they passed each other in a hallway.

That was one of the recollections fondly recounted by E. Wayne Craven — now H.F. du Pont Professor Emeritus of Art History — when he gave the opening talk at the Department of Art History’s 50th anniversary celebration on Friday, Sept. 30.

Craven, who became one of two early faculty members when he joined UD in 1960, would go on to be one of the founders of the department, with the late William Innes Homer. And the department, which was launched in 1966 complete with a doctoral program, would go on to national prominence for its faculty scholarship and the achievements of its alumni.

The anniversary event drew more than 100 alumni, students and faculty to the opening reception and what Craven said was his own “trip down memory lane.”

On Saturday, Oct. 1, the celebration continued with a daylong symposium featuring speakers and panel discussions on such topics as museums and European, contemporary, world and American art.

In his talk, Craven described how the departments of Art and Art History separated in 1966, and art history immediately launched a doctoral program. With a limited number of faculty and resources, but with an important founding gift from Amy E. du Pont and the full support of the University administration, the graduate program started small but had plans to expand rapidly, he said.

“We knew it wasn’t going to be a large program, but that first group was a wonderful class,” he recalled.

Like Craven, the doctoral program specialized in American art, a field that had been largely overlooked by scholars at the time. In fact, Craven came to UD as a medievalist and only began learning about American art when he was required to teach a class in American painting.

“I had nothing against American art,” he told the audience. “I just didn’t know it existed.”

After discovering his interest in the field, and realizing the potential for research in such a “wide-open” area of study, Craven became a pioneer in establishing American art as a legitimate subject of scholarly investigation.

As he became a noted authority in American 19th-century art, his teaching and many books and articles helped to make UD’s Department of Art History one of the prime national centers for the study of American art and culture.

“Fifty years ago, our art history department was instrumental in advancing scholarship in American art,” said Debra Hess Norris, also speaking at the anniversary celebration. “This tradition continues today … [in] a prominent department of leading scholars, teachers and mentors.”

Norris, who earned her bachelor’s degree in art history at UD, today is Unidel Henry Francis du Pont Chair in Fine Arts, chair of the Department of Art Conservation and interim associate dean for the humanities in the College of Arts and Sciences.

She told the audience about the art history professors and classes that inspired her as a student and have continued to be important in her life and career.

Art history department chair Lawrence Nees, H. Fletcher Brown Chair of Humanities, said that in the last 50 years the department has produced more than 150 doctoral graduates, more than 200 graduates in the master’s degree program and some 500 undergraduate majors. He thanked the alumni who returned for the anniversary celebration and all those who have offered their professional assistance to UD students and fellow alumni over the years.

“The Delaware network is renowned,” Nees said. “And I hope it will only grow more so” in the future.