Anyone seriously interested–and I don’t only mean professionals, but also people like me who are amateurs in the true sense of the word–in 19th-century American landscape painting owes a huge debt to Barbara Novak, whether or not they are even aware of it. As a doctoral student researching in Europe in the mid-1950s for her PhD dissertation on 15th-century Flemish art, Barbara Novak decided to defy convention and switch her topic to the Hudson River School artists Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand. Completing her dissertation in 1957, she joined the faculty of Barnard College the following year, and thus began a long and distinguished career of research, writing, teaching, and mentoring new research students, all of which compelled the art world to take seriously a topic that until then was virtually completely ignored. Her book trilogy Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting 1825-1875, American Painting of the Nineteenth Century: Realism, Idealism, and the American Experience, and now Voyages of the Self: Pairs, Parallels, and Patterns in American Art and Literature are classics in the field.
On Sunday April 14, the Thomas Cole National Historic Site honored Barbara Novak’s outstanding contributions to American art scholarship with a program in her honor, in which leading art scholars Ella M. Foshay, Annette Blaugrund, Adrienne Baxter Bell, and Karen Wilkin, along with literary scholar H. Daniel Peck and photographer Susan Wides each paid tribute to Dr. Novak and explained her influence on their own lives and careers. A true Renaissance woman, Dr. Novak is also a poet as well as a painter, and fifth-grader Isaac Barnes, the son of Thomas Cole Site Trustee David Barnes, read a selection of her poetry with stunning poise. Her husband, artist, author, and art critic Brian O’Doherty, was also on hand to pay special tribute to his remarkable wife–he referred to the “Barbara Diaspora”–“her students are everywhere.”
Finally, Dr. Novak herself offered her own reflections on her life and career. A painter herself even before embarking on the academic study of art history, she was overwhelmed at the thought that her own paintings of flowers were now hanging in Thomas Cole’s house: “I hope he doesn’t mind,” she said. About Cole, whom she called “one of the great intellectual artists” in America, she commented that it’s impossible to exhaust his riches in a lifetime.
One has to admire not only the breadth and depth of learning and reflection Dr. Novak has brought to her chosen area of study over the years, but also the vision of the young doctoral student who, on a Fulbright grant in Europe, noted that “there were plenty of 15th-century Flemish scholars doing the same things over and over,” saw the potential in doing something new, and embarked on a lifetime study of the group she calls “my guys”–Cole, Durand, and their colleagues.
On Sunday April 28, one of the speakers at Dr. Novak’s tribute will take the podium in her own right: Annette Blaugrund, curator of the 2013 exhibition at the Thomas Cole Site Albert Bierstadt in New York & New England, will introduce the exhibition with a lecture at 2 pm. This is followed by a reception and open house from 3 to 4 pm. Why not take this opportunity to make the acquaintance of one of the leading exponents of the second generation of Hudson River School Artists?