- Mary Sheriff and ASECS
Mary D. Sheriff (1950-2016) was well-known to the ASECS community. Perhaps her most prominent role in the organization was as co-editor of this journal, a responsibility she shared with James Thompson between 1993 and 1998. Some may remember the brilliant Clifford lecture she delivered at the 2009 annual conference in Richmond, Virginia, a version of which was later published in Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture.1 These highlights were only part of her longtime participation in ASECS, a history that dates back to the late 1970s. Mary also produced numerous doctoral students in her role as Kenan Distinguished Professor of Art History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Many of her students are now regulars at ASECS and their number includes the two of us. But Mary's legacy with ASECS is more than just that of an enthusiastic participant. It is a special relationship indeed, one that has important implications for the development of eighteenth-century art history in the United States and that requires explanation in order for its full significance to be understood.
Colleagues in the other disciplines represented at ASECS—Literary Studies, History, and Philosophy especially—are often surprised to learn that Art History traditionally hasn't had much to say about eighteenth-century art. Prior to the 1970s, the subject was mostly ignored at American universities, with few art historians willing to confess an interest in its visual culture. English-language scholarship remained surprisingly sparse even into the 1980s, certainly when compared to the flood of scholarship on Renaissance and modern art. The reasons for this imbalance are complex. Art History has tended to privilege art that reflects straightforwardly [End Page 151] the social characteristics of its historical moment. It also has a predilection for celebrating art that offers observers profound psychological revelations in aesthetic form. These are qualities that can be assigned to a few eighteenth-century artists, David and Goya notably, but it is difficult to characterize much eighteenth-century art in such terms. The foundational methodological approaches of art history predisposed art historians to find eighteenth-century art lacking. This was especially so for rococo art, as Dena Goodman and Melissa Hyde discuss in their contributions to this forum. The seductive surfaces of rococo painting, its playful subject matter, its delight in whimsy and surprise, and what many critics saw as its femininity, made it a hard sell to scholars trained to regard Michelangelo and Picasso as the pinnacles of Western artistic achievement. Much the same could be said of pastels, Enlightenment religious imagery, and late Revolutionary history paintings, the subjects of the essays by Kathleen Nicholson, Christopher Johns, and Tili Boon Cuillé respectively.
Mary Sheriff recognized the potential of ASECS to build the field of eighteenth-century art history in North America. She was not alone in this, for sure; she belonged to the pioneer generation of art historians (many still active in ASECS's conferences) who understood the organization's potential to enliven this underdeveloped area of art history. Yet Mary was among its most enthusiastic champions. She loved eighteenth-century art and was unafraid to say so. In a late-career essay she remarked that some of its imagery is so beautiful that it can move you to tears.2 But she also saw in this beautiful art the potential for major disciplinary revision, a golden opportunity to knock down old assumptions about what makes art important and to build a more diverse and vibrant art history. It was not through the College Art Association, the major American venue for art-historical scholarship, that such revision would be possible, since too many old biases lingered there. That's where ASECS entered the picture. At its conferences she and her cohort found a community of scholars from other fields who valued the period and wished to see sophisticated thinking brought to its art. They began to propose papers, chair panels, and otherwise create a community of scholars who took eighteenth-century art seriously. And since ASECS is an interdisciplinary organization, the cross-pollination of ideas across disciplinary boundaries became an essential quality of...