- ASECS at 50:Interview with Heather McPherson
"Sometimes you just have to be a little proactive," laughs Heather McPherson, Professor of Art History at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, as she ensures we get in our order for a quick lunch in Edinburgh with enough time to chat. We have just managed to meet between an ISECS plenary session on celebrity and portraiture, one of her own areas of expertise, and a hands-on caricature drawing workshop that she plans to attend in the afternoon. A veteran of ASECS meetings, McPherson is no stranger to making the most of our field's most immersive gatherings.
Our lunch in Edinburgh was, in fact, reminiscent—we first met at a HECAA (Historians of Eighteenth Century Art and Architecture) lunch at ASECS in 2016. McPherson's participation in the HECAA caucus is only a slice of her ASECS engagement. McPherson served as President of ASECS from 2010 to 2011, and as a longstanding Affiliates Coordinator, from 1998 to 2008. She believes that ASECS is a uniquely welcoming academic community, much like the eighteenth century itself, and takes her presence and participation in earnest. Having attended nearly every meeting since 1983, McPherson has long made herself open and available to established and emerging scholars. As an energetic presenter and engaged listener, she is an ASECS staple.
McPherson has published extensively on French and British art and visual culture. Her particular focus is portraiture, as featured in her latest book, the widely-acclaimed Art and Celebrity in the Age of Reynolds and Siddons (2017). This was the pinnacle of more than a decade of research. McPherson has received fellowships and grants from the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, the Folger Shakespeare Library, the Lewis Walpole Library, the Harvard Theatre Collection, [End Page 171] the Yale Center for British Art, the Huntington Library, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. She has received awards for her scholarship from the Southeastern College Art Conference and the Southeastern American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, and in 2018 was the recipient of the Ireland Award for Scholarly Distinction from the College of Arts and Sciences, University of Alabama at Birmingham. She is also the author of The Modern Portrait in Nineteenth-Century France (2001). Recent articles include "Madame Récamier's Serial Portraits," Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 47 (2018), "Corot's Studio Revisited: Theme and Variations," in Corot: Women (National Gallery of Art/Yale University Press, 2018), and "Tragic Pallor and Siddons," Eighteenth-Century Studies 48 (2015).
Can you start by sharing a little about your own academic or intellectual path? What originally brought you to the eighteenth century?
My intellectual path was shaped by my fascination with French language and culture which took root during my junior year abroad in Paris. It was the daily experience of being surrounded by history and immersed in centuries of art and material culture that led me to art history. Along with language courses, I studied art history at the École du Louvre. After completing my BA in French, I returned to Paris and completed a license and maîtrise (MA) in art history at the Université de Paris IV/Sorbonne. Although I hated to leave, I realized I had no professional future in France so reluctantly returned to the United States. While unsuccessfully applying for museum jobs, I enrolled in art history courses at the University of Washington and embarked on a Ph.D. Hal Opperman, a dixhuitièmiste and Oudry specialist, introduced me to the eighteenth century. On completing my degree, I was hired as a modernist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where I taught introductory surveys and nineteenth- and twentieth-century art, which is reflected in my research, which extends from the eighteenth to the twentieth century. My most popular course was Art Since 1945. Eventually, I developed a course on eighteenth-century France and England, which I teach every other year.
Do you remember your first ASECS meeting? What motivated you to attend, and what has kept you involved?
My first ASECS meeting was in...