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Three-Part Series Honors Groundbreaking Professor of Art History Linda Nochlin

In 1971, Vassar Professor of Art History Linda Nochlin ’51 published an essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” that virtually revolutionized the study of art. The essay, which has become required reading for art historians, raised significant questions about underappreciated women artists throughout history and how women’s achievements are recognized—or remain unrecognized—in other fields as well. In March, the College celebrated the 50th anniversary of that essay and the 70th anniversary of Nochlin’s graduation from Vassar with a three-part online tribute, viewed by hundreds of alumnae/i, including some of Nochlin’s students and Vassar classmates.

Photo: Julia Trotta

On March 11, T. Barton Thurber, Ann Hendricks Bass Director of the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, and Patricia Phagan, Philip and Lynn Straus ’46 Curator of Prints and Drawings, hosted a virtual exhibition titled, Women Picturing Women: From Personal Spaces to Public Ventures, featuring art from the museum’s collection.

On March 18, Ewa Lajer-Bucharth, Professor of Fine Art at Harvard University, and Molly Nesbit ’74, Vassar Professor of Art on the Mary Conover Melon Chair, conducted the lecture, The Paintress’s Studio: The Woman Artist and the Medium.

The tribute concluded on March 25, when Nochlin’s granddaughter, Julia Trotta, and two of Nochlin’s former students, Nesbit and Susan Casteras ’71, Professor of Art Emerita at the University of Washington and former Curator of Paintings at the Yale Center for British Art, offered personal memories and reflections after viewing film and video clips from throughout Nochlin’s life compiled by Trotta.

Nesbit said Nochlin had had a profound effect on her life, both personally and professionally. “I was told about the phenomenon of Linda when I mentioned I was interested in art history when I took my admissions tour of Vassar,” she said.  “She endeared herself to a generation of Vassar students; she was inspiring and she had this fundamental optimism with regard to change that was infectious.

“Seeing her in those clips just puts the wind back in your sails because her energy was so vivid,” Nesbit continued. “She had the ability to use her intelligence without compromise.”

Professor Nochlin enthralled students in her art history classes.Photo: Vassar Archives and Special Collections

Trotta said she didn’t have a specific plan in mind when she began to compile the clips of her grandmother’s life. But as she reflected on their time together, she began to appreciate the profound effect that her grandmother had on her life. “I have definitely internalized a lot of her work and her political positions,” she said. “I question power structures and the status quo and really think about the hierarchies that are in place, how and why they exist and for whose benefit.”

Casteras, who was working with Nochlin when she wrote her famous essay, said she was captivated by her mentor’s energy and intellect from the first time she heard her speak as a lecturer in Art 105. “I was a freshman in 1967 and had no idea you could study a field that combined so many fields of interest into one magnificent whole,” she said. “I took every course Linda offered, and it was clear this was not your mother’s art history. It was totally eye-opening.”

Thurber said Nochlin’s influence on the museum’s collection is obvious. He noted that many of the works selected for the Women Picturing Women exhibition were added between 1952 and 1980, when she taught at Vassar. “During those years,” he said, “the Vassar College Art Gallery presented more historical and contemporary women-centered exhibitions than ever before. Nochlin’s innovative teaching and scholarship, including the publication a half-century ago of her seminal article “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?,” formed the basis of a new feminist art history.”

During the tribute, President Elizabeth Bradley announced plans for the creation of the Linda Nochlin ’51 Memorial Fellowship, which will support graduating seniors and recent graduates who are pursuing advanced studies in art history. "Professor Nochlin is remembered by countless alumnae/i for her fierce intellect, and for her keen interest in the research and the intellectual growth of her students," she said. "Helping to nurture the careers of the art historians of the future is a most fitting tribute to this remarkable Vassar alumna."

Click on the dates above to access videos of the events. To learn more about how you may support the Nochlin Fellowship, please contact Gregg McCarty, Associate Director of Leadership Gifts, at gmccarty@vassar.edu.