American Art up Close

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American Art up Close

By Emily Colby, WFU Class of '14| @LearnReynolda
As the professor flips from one slide to the next, I find myself trying to remember if I saw Courbet’s Burial at Ornans when I visited the Musee d’Orsay in Paris or making a mental note that I need to go see Velazquez’s Las Meninas if I ever visit the Prado in Madrid. Looking at the images of each work of art intrigues me and makes me wonder what they would look like in person. In American Visual Arts at Reynolda House Museum of American Art, I do not have to keep checklists and wish lists, as I am able to simply walk up the stairs and into the historic house to see the originals of the works of art we have discussed in class. 
Taking an art history course in the Museum affords my classmates and me the unique opportunity to stand in front of the works of art that we are studying in class. Viewing the works in person not only helps us to gain a sense of their scale and of the artist’s technique, but also allows us to compare and contrast the art with other pieces among which it hangs. Each week in class, we spend about an hour looking at images of American art, such as early furniture, famous landscape paintings, or celebrated portraits; we then leave the auditorium and venture into the house. The next hour passes quickly as we move from room to room, from painting to decorative object, discussing the various stories that each piece of art tells and uncovering the ways in which the artists created these objects. While only a portion of the works we learn about in class are part of the Reynolda House collection, we can always find a way to use the objects in front of us to better understand the overarching themes and the other works we have discussed in lecture.
Professor Chew offers a unique perspective, given her experience working in various museum settings. Besides focusing on the essential memorization and terminology, Professor Chew also encourages students to make our own observations and draw from our personal experiences in order to understand the works of art on display. She stimulates interpretation for both art history majors and students new to the discipline. In addition to learning about American art, I feel that I have gained insight about how to facilitate or participate in an educated discussion about a work of art in front of me with people who have varying knowledge about art. 
The American Visual Arts class has offered me an experience unlike any of the many other art history courses I have taken in my major at Wake Forest. Much like my experience abroad, studying art history in Prague, in this course I have been able to stand in front of a work of art as I learn about it. We students here at Wake Forest do not even have to leave our campus to engage with art in this first-hand manner. We are fortunate to have it in our own backyard.

Image Credit: Gilbert Stuart, Mrs. Harrison Gray Otis (Sally Foster), 1809. Reynolda House Museum of American Art, Original Purchase Fund from the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, ARCA, and Anne Cannon Forsyth, 1967.2.3.

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