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Northwestern University

Becoming a “Chevalier”

Prestigious award capped off momentous year for Professor S. Hollis Clayson

Professor of Art History S. Hollis Clayson has had a momentous year — first serving in a prestigious professorship at CASVA, the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and then winning a prestigious award from the French government.

Clayson is back on the Evanston campus this quarter, where she continues to teach and conduct research. But she says her term as the Samuel H. Kress Professor at the National Gallery of Art was a career high point, a “spectacular experience” that allowed her to collaborate with other art historians and museum curators — a mix that created an enriching and stimulating learning environment.

And to top the year off, the French Ministry of Education named Clayson a Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes académiques (known in English-speaking countries as a Knight in the Order of the Academic Palms). The honor is bestowed upon scholars who have advanced the cause of French culture and the French language.

“I’m thrilled. I’ve always wanted to be a Chevalier,” Clayson said. “But there is no sense waiting for your phone to ring.  Mysteriously, it either comes or it doesn’t.”

A circuitous path

For Clayson, it came, but only after a series of “strange turns” that led her to find her niche in the study of 19th-century French art.

Clayson discovered her passion for art history soon after she entered Wellesley College. She took her first class in art history at the beginning of her freshman year. The discipline immediately “set its hooks into her,” and by mid-October, she had declared a major in art history.

After graduation, Clayson lived and worked in Greece for one year, and then migrated eventually to begin graduate study in art history  at the University of California in Los Angeles. She focused her master’s thesis on an aspect of the history of the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Parade, and, in the course of her fieldwork, became the first woman in the history of the Rose parade to be invited to drive a float.

“I knew so much about what float driving was like,” Clayson said, “that I declined the invitation.”

Soon after, “like a lightning bolt,” the arrival of a dynamic and path-breaking art historian at UCLA, T. J. Clark, converted Clayson, more or less overnight, to the study of 19th-century French art. 

“That’s how it happened,” Clayson said. “It was completely unplanned. I’d never thought much about French art before, but the example of Clark’s scholarship and teaching was galvanizing.  It was a ‘Paul on the Road to Damascus’ experience.”

Books and honors

Clayson has since published three books and is now working on a fourth, and her list of awards is long and growing. She has been honored with numerous fellowships, was the first and only junior professor to receive the College Art Association’s Distinguished Teaching of Art History Award, and was named the Bergen Evans Professor in the Humanities at Northwestern in 2006.

Clayson currently teaches undergraduate and graduate classes in art history, specializing in the art of France in the 1800s. Her first book, Painted Love, focused on the imagery of prostitution during the Impressionist era. Her second book, Paris in Despair, followed the passage of artists through the trauma of war.

Clayson is also working this quarter with undergraduate students to curate an exhibit of the prints and posters of French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec at Northwestern’s Block Museum. It is scheduled to open in January 2015.

She is now working on her fourth book, Electric Paris, which focuses on artists’ responses to the introduction of electric light in Paris, the “City of Light.” Her book will aim to explain why the city is known for light, and to explain both the literal and metaphorical meanings of its nickname. The idea for the book came to her as she was studying Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night Over the Rhone” and noticed the contest between gaslight and starlight in the painting.

“My projects tend to start with the encounter of a surprising picture. I scratch my head and start asking questions,” Clayson said. “Especially when I discover there’s something there that art historians have never asked about before.”

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