A Brief History of the Department of Art History and Archaeology

The Department of Art History and Archaeology has a long and  distinguished history.  The first art history courses at Washington University began in 1896, in the College of Liberal Arts. A key figure in this initiative was the American tonalist painter, Edmund Wuerpel (1866-1958), who had studied painting in Paris with Gérôme. Early art history courses included surveys of ancient through modern art, and special lectures on anatomy, perspective, and decorative art and design, all following in the beaux-arts academic tradition of the late 19th-century.  

The department, and the first PhD program in art history West of the Mississippi, were founded by George Mylonas (1898-1988), who was on the faculty from 1933 to 1968. A Greek archaeologist, Mylonas was a specialist in Bronze Age Greece and was known for his excavations at Mycenae and Corinth. Other key early figures from the department’s first decades were H.W. Janson (1913-1988), Frederick Hart (1914-1991) and Nelson Wu (1919-2002). Janson had studied art history at the University of Homburg with Erwin Panofsky, and having fled Nazi Germany, moved to Harvard to finish his studies, and then eventually to Washington University for the period 1941-1949. Janson wrote one of the most widely adopted art history survey texts of all time, one still in common use today. 

Hartt was one of the famous “Monuments Men” who, while serving in the army, had helped trace and rescue precious art collections in Tuscany in the aftermath of the war. 

Nelson Wu was both an art historian and a creative writer.  Trained at Yale, he came to Washington University in the early 1960s, and expanded the Department’s offerings into the field of Asian art and architecture, with a strong focus on issues of cosmological belief, spirituality, and philosophy.

In 1960, the Department moved into a striking modernist building, Mark C. Steinberg Hall. The building, distinguished by a new method of thin concrete plate construction, was designed by Fumihiko Maki, the Japanese architect who became a Pritzker Prize winner in 1993. The building was then home to art history classrooms, a slide collection, an art library (the precursor of the Kranzberg Art and Architecture Library), the Gallery of Art (now the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum), and Steinberg  auditorium. Both the building and the programs of the art history department were strongly supported by generous gifts from local arts philanthropist Etta E. Steinberg.

A Steinberg Professorship in modern art was initiated with the appointment of Jean Sutherland Boggs (1922-2014) in 1964.  Prof. Boggs was an accomplished international scholar of French post-impressionist art, notably Edgar Degas. Her passion was less in teaching than in the museum world however, and she left St. Louis to become the first female Director of two leading museums: first, the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, and then, the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 

The late 1960s was a time of transition for the Department, as Boggs left in 1966 and Mylonas retired in 1968. Mark Weil (1939-2021), hired in 1968, had been educated at Columbia University by scholars Meyer Shapiro, Rudolf Wittkower and Howard Hibbard. An undergraduate alumnus of Washington University, and pleased to return to St. Louis, Prof. Weil took on teaching Italian Renaissance and Baroque art. Following a wave of retirements in the 1960s, he helped rebuild the department, and then served as Chair on two occasions in the ‘80s and ‘90s.  Prof. Weil served here as a professor for 37 years.

As Mylonas retired, another Greek archaeologist took his place. Sarantis Symeonolou (PhD, Columbia) had already impressed Mylonas in Athens with his skills in translation and excavation. Prof. Symeonoglou taught here for 46 years, returning often in his scholarship to probing the texts of Homer, and their possible relationship to the archaeological record on the Greek island of Ithaca. 

From the 1970s on, a Duchamp scholar, Pete Steefel, taught in the field of modern art, until his death in 1992. Profs. Robert Jensen first, and then Elizabeth Childs (PhD, Columbia, who was named the Steinberg Professor in 2012 and who currently serves as Chair) subsequently joined the department to offer courses in modern art. William E. Wallace (PhD, Columbia) was hired in 1983 as a specialist in the art and architecture of the Italian Renaissance. Now the Barbara Murphy Bryant Distinguished Professor (and Chair of this department from 1998-2006), he is recognized as a world authority on the art and biography of Michelangelo.

The definition of modern art expanded at Washington University in the 1970s. In 1976, the year of the American bicentennial, the Department offered its first graduate courses in American art, bringing in William Gerdts weekly from Washington D.C. to teach a course. The Department then hired Angela Miller, a scholar trained in American Cultural Studies at Yale. Over her long tenure as the first Americanist in the department, she has trained a new generation of Americanists who are widely versed in American history, literature and a broad range of visual culture.

In the 21st century, we have been fortunate to add many dynamic faculty.  Prof. John Klein (PhD, Columbia University) came to this faculty from the University of Missouri-Columbia in 2008. A scholar of modern European and American art, and a specialist in the art of Henri Matisse, he has strong general interests in the subjects of portraiture, public sculpture and the intersection of modernism and the decorative aesthetic.  Over the last decade, we have enjoyed a period of curricular growth and intellectual regeneration. Significant additions to our faculty in this period include Professor Kristina Kleutghen (PhD, Harvard) , the David Mesker Professor of Asian Art and a specialist in the arts of  Chinese art of the Ming and Qing dynasties and in Sino-foreign relations. Professor Nate Jones (PhD, Yale) is a specialist in ancient classical art and architecture, and has lively interests in aesthetic theory and the history of the discipline of art history. Prof. Ila Sheren (PhD, M.I.T.) is  a specialist in global contemporary art, and particularly in activist art, eco-art, new media, and art generated around issues of national borders. Prof. Nicola Arrevecchia (PhD, University of Minnesota; jointly appointed with the Department of Classics), a specialist in late antique Egypt, carries on departmental strengths in field archaeology in the ancient world established by Profs. Mylonas, Symeonoglou and Susan Rotroff (a distinguished archaeologist in the field of Greek pottery, who for almost two decades shared an appointment in this department with the Department of Classics).

We are also pleased to frequently diversify our offerings with postdoctoral appointments. Since 2011, we have been able to offer a broad range of courses in such subfields as Islamic, South Asian, Oceanic, and Ancient American art and archaeology, through a collaborative postdoctoral program undertaken with the Saint Louis Art Museum. We anticipate expanding our faculty again soon with a distinguished appointment in the field of early modern European art history, thanks to the generosity of Mark S. Weil and Joan Hall-Weil. We are committed to stimulating collaborations with faculty in the Humanities and Social Sciences, and with our museum colleagues both at the University and in our city.

In 2021-22, we will be honored to celebrate 125 years of the teaching of art history at Washington University.

Elizabeth C. Childs
Etta and Mark Steinberg Professor of Modern Art

July 2020