| Art History

Jonathan Brown

(on leave fall 2016, spring 2017)

Carroll and Milton Petrie Professor of Fine Arts

PhD 1964, Princeton University

With my retirement after 51 years of teaching (Princeton-8; IFA-43) just over the horizon, this document inevitably has a retrospective quality. It contains not what I am planning but what I have achieved. Without modesty, I believe I have made a mark in my field—Hispanic art—and in the wider world of art history. These contributions would only have been possible at the Institute of Fine Arts.

My decision to study the art of the Hispanic world was motivated by my junior year in Spain in 1958-59 (the first junior year abroad scheme offered at NYU). Spanish art at that time was a neglected area of study outside Spain. Spain was a military dictatorship which made it a pariah in the liberal democracies of Western Europe and the USA. Curiously, the cultural stagnation of the regime presented an ideal opportunity for new approaches to the Golden Age of Spanish art, which was deliberately closed to outside influences. My graduate study at Princeton (1960-64), which was strongly influenced by the iconographical writings of Erwin Panofsky, provided me with tools to fashion a new approach to the field.

However, my initial publications were catalogues of drawings by Jusepe de Ribera and Bartolome Murillo (1973 and 1976, respectively). Having come from a family of collectors, I was instinctively attracted to the study of art objects, which have always played a big part in my scholarship.

I was a member of the Princeton Department of Art and Archeology from 1965-73 when I was offered the directorship of the Institute, which was then experiencing an acute financial crisis. With the help of John Loeb, the crisis was averted. I had come to a crossroads—administration or scholarship and teaching. I chose the latter and in 1973 published a much-revised version of my doctoral dissertation, Images and Ideas in Seventeenth-century Spanish Painting. This book broke new ground. Unlike my previous publications, this one explored artistic production from the vantage point of social and political history. I’m told that it fell like a bombshell in the ranks of Spanish art historians. Implicitly, the book created a bridge between the iconographical approach of Panofsky and a contextual reading, which was suggested by Millard Meiss’ book on painting in Florence and Siena after the Black Death.

The approach was fortified by the arrival of the English historian J.H. Elliott, who had been appointed as permanent member of the History Faculty at the Institute for Advanced Study in 1973. Elliott had already achieved a major reputation as a historian of early-modern Spain. We struck up a friendship based on our common interest in the reign of Philip IV, which eventually produced the now-classic book, A Palace for a King (1980; second revised edition 2003). Elliott and I were later to collaborate in three exhibitions at the Museo del Prado and several articles. 

All along I was reading and researching the career of Diego Velazquez, which resulted in an innovative monograph, Velazquez, Painter and Courtier (1986). Utilizing the methods acquired by my collaboration with Elliott and the relatively new approach in art at the courts of Europe, I re-oriented the study of this master. I was able to try out these ideas with my appointment as Slade Professor of Art at the University of Oxford (1982). Thirty years after publication, the book is still in print and has been re-printed ten times in Spain, an otherwise unheard of record for an art-history book. (It has been translated into French and German.) The book was short-listed by the National Book Critics Circle in 1986.

In 1990, I produced a survey of Golden-Age painting, later revised and amplified in 1998. This book is the standard reference for the field.

My engagement with objects continued to fascinate me. In 1990, I co-authored the catalogue of Spanish painting in the National Gallery of Art. Somewhat parenthetically, I was appointed Curator of the American Philosophical Society (I was elected to membership in 1988.) The Society’s heterogeneous collection had been entirely neglected. With money raised from the Kress Foundation, I was able to hire a curatorial assistant to inventory the collection. I also commissioned the restoration of the Society’s bust of the Marquis de Condorcet, a masterpiece of J.A. Houdon which had been in the collection but neglected since its creation. I organized a small exhibition of the piece with an essay by fellow-member Robert Darnton (1998). A second exhibition was devoted to Josiah Wedgwoods’s anti-slavery medallion (1787). Eventually I had to resign the Curatorship as it was taking increasing amounts of time. Fortunately, the Society recognized the value of the exhibition program and created a space in Philosophical Hall, which presents two exhibitions a year with objects and papers devoted to the Society’s role in the development of American science.

In keeping with my main commitment to bring Spanish art to the American public, I served as chairman of the Fine Arts Program of the Spanish Institute between 1986 and 1999. Our goal was to organize two exhibitions per year. They are too numerous to mention except for the one devoted to polychrome sculpture, the first time this material was shown in an American venue.

More far-reaching has been my involvement with The Frick Collection, where I have organized five exhibitions. The most consequential is Goya’s Last Works, in collaboration with Susan Grace Galassi (2006), which was awarded “Exhibition of the Year” by New York Magazine.

In another register is my proposal that the Frick Art Reference Library establish a center for the history of collecting. However, as a consequence of my studies of the collections of the Spanish Habsburgs and particularly of a text prepared for my appointment as Andrew Mellon Lecturer at the National Gallery of Art, I was better-prepared to frame the subject. The lectures were published in 1995 with the title King and Connoisseurs: Collecting Art in Seventeenth-century Europe. Thanks to the efforts of the staff of the Frick Art History Library, especially Inge Reise, the founding director, my idea has flourished and the Center for the History of Collecting has become the hub of the ever-growing interest in this important field.

As my reputation in Spain waxed, so did my involvement with the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. With the appointment of a close friend and colleague as director, an ad hoc committee was formed, headed by Jose Maria Aznar, the President of Spain. Other members included the Minister of Culture and the Minister of Defense. The task was to modernize an institution that had fallen into an abyss of neglect. This complex goal was eventually accomplished, and I was decorated with the Great Cross of Alfonso X the Wise, the highest civilian award of the Kingdom of Spain, for my contributions to the task. (I had earlier been decorated with the rank of Commander of the Order of Isabel la Catolica and awarded the Medalla de Oro de Bellas Artes, Ministry of Culture, Spain both in 1986.) In 2012, I was appointed as Catedratico del Museo del Prado, which involved a series of six public lectures. These were published in 2014, entitled In the Shadow of Velazquez: A Life in Art History.

In the mid-1990s, I perceived the importance of painting in the American colonies of Spain. Especially influential for this change in direction was the invitation in 1994 to direct a seminar on Spanish painting for the professors of art history at the Universidad Autonoma de Mexico. A team had been formed to investigate the ties between Spanish and New Spanish painting, and I was invited to become a member. It soon became apparent that the study of the relationship between the Colony and the Iberian Peninsula needed to be rethought using the methodological concepts of cultural transfer and transculturation. Slowly but surely, the focus of my research and teaching moved from Spain to New Spain. The first event was the organization of a major exhibition at the Museo de America, Madrid 1999. I established a particularly fruitful relationship with the Fomento Cultural Banamex and served as comisario of Pintura de los Reinos, which was shown in Madrid in the Museo del Prado and the Palacio Real, and in Mexico City. My latest sally into this field is Colonial Painting in Latin America 1550-1820 (Yale University Press) edited by Luisa Elena Alcala, a former student, and me, which involved coordinating the contributions of seven authors. This book is already recognized as the standard reference for field. Another venture into Mexican painting was a small exhibition I curated at the Louvre, Mexico en el Louvre, in 2013.

I have served on many advisory panels (Guggenheim ACLS, Mellon Foundation, Princeton University Art Museum) and received many awards for my contributions to the field, of which the most important is the Distinguished Scholar by the College Art Association of America 2010. I was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1996. The number of my books, articles and reviews now stands at 119.

This elevated number could have been attained only at the Institute of Fine Arts. When I chose to leave Princeton, where I was a tenured associate professor, I recognized that I could only hope to attain my lifetime goals for increasing the understanding and appreciation of Hispanic art at the Institute. The factors that entered this equation were generous leave time and a student body comprised only of graduate degree candidates. My course offerings over the years can read as a syllabus of my “master” plan. Seminars provided a testing ground for new ideas and new areas and nourished the advanced work of my students. These are some of the qualities which make the Institute unique and a center for learning which is unsurpassed in the field of art history.

Research Interests

Spanish and New Spanish Painting, 1500-1800; History of Collecting; Art at European Courts, 17th Century.

Sample courses

Painting in Spain 1580-1700
El Greco
The Late Goya
Historiography of Painting in New Spain
Devotional Imagery in Spain and Spanish America

Recent publications

Brown, Jonathan, and Luisa Elena Alcalá. Painting in Latin America, 1550-1820: From Conquest to Independence. Yale University Press, 2014.

In the Shadow of Velázquez: A Life in Art History. Yale University Press, 2014.

Murillo & His Drawings. Yale University Press, 2012.

Recent Lectures

Velazquez: Master and Masterpieces, April 2014, The Frick Collection, New York.

Series of 6 lectures for the Catedratico del Museo del Prado, 2012, Madrid.

Recent Highlights

Curator of "Mexico en el Louvre: Obras maestras de la Nueva Espana, siglos XVII-XVIII," Musee de Louvre, Paris, 2013.

Curator of “Pintura de los Reinos,” Museo Nacional del Prado; Palacio Real de Madrid; Fomento Cultural Banamex, Mexico City, 2010-11.

Co-Curator of "The Spanish Manner: Drawings from Ribera to Goya," The Frick Collection, New York, 2010.

Selected honors

American Academy of Arts and Science
American Philosophical Society
Gran Cruz, Order of Alfonso X el Sabio (Spain)
Medalla de Oro de Bellas Artes (Spain)
Slade Professor of Fine Arts, Oxford University
Andrew W. Mellon Lecturer in the Fine Arts, National Gallery of Art, Washington

Video Spotlight

A conservation with Jonathan Brown about his time as Director of the Institute

"Velázquez: Master and Masterpieces" at the Frick Collection.