Art Up Close
The most common ways for art students to learn more about the world’s great paintings and sculptures are to study photos reproduced in books, on videos or online. But thanks to a special program sponsored by the Allbritton Art Institute, Baylor University art students regularly travel to prestigious art museums around the world to study masterpieces up close.
Each year, Dr. Sean DeLouche, lecturer in art history, leads students from his 19th Century Art History course on Institute-funded field trips to major art centers. The students use the experiences to view and do research on the great works of art inside a city’s museums. These field trips, both domestic and international, are made possible through funds provided by Baylor’s Allbritton Art Institute, founded in 1997 by longtime university benefactors Joe (LLB ’49) and Barbara Allbritton of Houston to promote the study of art history.
“The whole impetus for the creation of the Institute has been creating opportunities to put our students directly in front of the original artworks they are studying,” said Paul McCoy, professor of art and art history, ceramist-in-residence and director of the Allbritton Art Institute. “The cornerstone of the Institute is granting students the opportunity to stand in front of original art. Through his work, the late Joe Allbritton developed the means to afford the luxury of giving other people this opportunity via the Institute.”
A Comprehensive Itinerary
In October 2018, the Institute sponsored a four-day field study in New York City for nine students in DeLouche’s class.
“The objective of the study was to allow the students to see a work of art they were studying for a research paper in my class,” DeLouche said. “This trip allowed them to see the art up close and in person, to study it on their own and talk about it with their peers. In some cases, students actually met with specialists and curators related to the art to talk about their ideas and their research.”
The trip started with a full day at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (The MET). The students’ jam-packed itinerary included a visit to the prints collection at the New York Public Library, time at the Frick Collection on 5th Avenue and a visit to the Guggenheim Museum. On the final day of the trip, the students returned to The MET and were responsible for taking the Baylor group around the museum and leading discussions in front of their chosen works of art.
“All nine students planned out the day,” DeLouche said. “They showed off what they had learned from their research, and more specifically, what they had learned during the field study.”
Why is it essential for students to be able to see works of art in person, as opposed to viewing them in a textbook or on a computer screen? DeLouche said that in person, students are able to study texture and observe the brushstrokes of the artist, as well as understand the impact of scale, or size, of a particular work.
“Seeing art share wall space with other works –– works of the same subject, works by the same painter, works of the same period –– puts it in a different context that triggers new ideas and new thoughts about it,” DeLouche said, adding that new ideas might not blossom if students merely view paintings in a textbook.
Seeing artwork in person not only contributes to a student’s research project, but it adds to their reception of that artwork. DeLouche is a firm believer in what’s called “reception theory,” which says that art’s meaning is constantly generated in the present –– it comes from discourse. When his students are in front of a physical piece of art, DeLouche encourages them to use their subjectivity and discuss their ideas amongst themselves.
“Meaning is always made in the present. As students of art are studying it, they’re talking about their ideas, exchanging thoughts and generating meaning,” he said. “These ideas must be attached to historical context and the culture or individual that made it.”
McCoy said looking at a work of art is like looking through a window to the artist’s soul. We are able to recognize that the artist didn’t just live in a different period or in a different place, but that they are a different human being.
“We recognize things about our own humanity in the presence of great art,” McCoy said. “To look into the eyes of Edgar Degas in one of his self-portraits, standing in front of the painting and seeing how he made those marks, you have no choice but to see yourself.”
Big Impact for Students
Junior art history major Taylor Strander and Amanda Smith, a sophomore studio art major with a concentration in printmaking, were two of the nine students who reaped many personal benefits from the fall 2018 trip to New York City. Smith had written many art history research papers before, “but this was the first time I got to see the work while actively researching it,” she said. Strander, meanwhile, said that her favorite part of the trip was the ability to “meet with professionals in the art world, like curators and researchers,” as this allowed her “to see what working in those fields is like.”
DeLouche said students benefit from leading their peers through the museums and giving mini-lectures drawing from the research the student has done while there.
“When students are on the ground in a museum, and they are responsible for leading a presentation or talking to a curator, they take ownership of their ideas and their thoughts,” DeLouche said.
In early April 2019, DeLouche, who specializes in 18th and 19th century art history, led another group of his students on a field study to Los Angeles to study Neoclassicism and Romanticism at distinguished institutions such as the Getty Museum, the Getty Research Institute, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Norton Simon Museum and the Huntington Library with their important collection of 18th century portraits.
In addition to the semiannual research trips, the Allbritton Art Institute is developing a May minimester class for studies abroad.
“In academia today, this program is unique. Many schools offer field trips in art, but I don’t know of any school in the United States or Europe that has a program like this, where the entire program is underwritten, making the cost to students virtually free,” McCoy said. “There are a lot of schools doing great things in the arts, but it’s impossible to be involved in this program without recognizing how special and unique a program the Allbrittons created at Baylor.”