Course Highlight: ART 343 “Topics in 19th-Century Art: Artists and Their Subjects”

March 4, 2023

ART 343 “Topics in 19th-Century Art: Artists and Their Subjects” explores the various representations of the relationship between artist and subject in the period between the French Revolution and the turn of the nineteenth century. Throughout the semester, lecturer Carmen Rosenberg-Miller *22, whose own work centers around philosophies of identity in 19th-century European art, guides students through the period’s art movements, from Neoclassicism and Realism to Impressionism and Post-Impression, tracing this progression through portraiture.

Coming from a variety of disciplines, many of the undergraduate students enrolled in this introductory course are delving into art history for the first time. “I was not expecting to enjoy the discussions so much,” said ecology and evolutionary biology major Drew Somerville ’24. “I have spent most of my time at Princeton in STEM classes. I decided to join the class because I needed a fifth class this semester. Dr. Rosenberg-Miller has welcomed me into the world of art history very enthusiastically and I feel like in just a few weeks I’ve learned so much and developed an interest in the topic.”

On a recent visit to the Princeton University Art Museum’s offsite classroom, the class examined eight prints and an oil painting by Manet along with works by Courbet, Toulouse-Lautrec, and others.  

Carmen Rosenberg-Miller points to lower corner of a painting.
Lecturer Carmen Rosenberg-Miller and students examine Gustave Courbet’s Portrait of a Young Woman (ca. 1845), on loan from the Henry and Rose Pearlman Foundation since 1976 to the Princeton University Art Museum (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

“The PUAM’s collections are an extraordinary teaching resource. Leading up to our offsite visit, students, many of whom are taking their first art history course, honed in on the material qualities that are essential to interpreting works of art. Scale, facture, and palette are qualities that can only be approximated by a PowerPoint slide. During our visit to storage, students were keenly attentive to the differences between material object and digital reproduction. One of our readings, by the art historian Susan Sidlauskas, asked “What is the proper scale for the face?” Another reading by Carol Armstrong equated the built-up facture of Manet’s portraits with the enactedness of self-presentation. These art historical arguments are built on close looking performed before objects in person. The opportunity to spend a full hour looking at Young Lady in a Round Hat, considering it from different perspectives, comparing it with other works, and discussing it as a group, is fundamental to the visual literacy skills that this course seeks to instill in students.” - Lecturer Carmen Rosenberg-Miller

Five students lean in to examine painting of a young woman half obscured by a mirror.
Students examine Alfred Stevens’ The Psyché (My Studio) (ca. 1871), purchased with the Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund for the Princeton University Art Museum (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

Students immersed themselves in the works, probing cues in the artists’ techniques and choices to draw conclusions about the connection between artist and subject. “I’ve loved getting to look at art in a completely new way in this course,” said English major JJ Scott ’24. “I’ve always enjoyed visiting art museums, and this class has helped me realize just how many details I’ve been overlooking until now. It’s exciting to see lines, color, posing, and even eye contact as an artist’s way of making an argument about the relationship between painter, subject, and viewer.”

The contrast in the rendering of Édouard Manet’s Young Woman in a Round Hat and the woman in Alfred Stevens’ The Psyché (My Studio), which hung side by side in the classroom, illustrated the artists’ vastly different approaches in visualizing their subjects. Students found Manet’s subject to be distant. Sketchy brushwork, an uncertain background, and the veil shrouding her face contributed to a sense of ambiguity that left students wondering whether the representation of her stiff torso joined a living body. Steven’s subject, by comparison, seems fully-fledged despite being only partially visible. Students commented on the excess of detail that, along with the allegorical mirror mounted on an easel, proposed the work as a transparent reflection of a studio scene in contrast with Manet’s evidently produced image

"Had we stayed in class for five more hours, we would have never run out of new details to notice."  –JJ Scott '24

Students examining prints and paintings in classroom.

ART 343 students examining works in the Princeton University Art Museum Classroom (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

“It felt surreal to examine the works on display last week. To see Manet’s and Courbet’s portraits in such an intimate space was incredible. Getting to discuss paintings just two feet in front of us is an experience so rare in a classroom, and had we stayed in class for five more hours, we would have never run out of new details to notice,” said Scott. Somerville echoed her sentiments, saying, “I was really in awe of the fact that I was even in the same room as some of the works we’ve examined. Like I said, I don’t have much of a previous interest in art history and have only been to a few museums. I never would have expected that one of my elective classes would allow me the opportunity to look at original Manets and Courbets in such close proximity. It’s really cool to delve into this world, and I’m super grateful for Dr. Rosenberg-Miller for guiding us.”

The breadth of artists and works Rosenberg-Miller presents gives students many access points. “I really enjoyed looking at the works of Rosa Bonheur in Week 4, a feminist and queer painter who focused on animals in her work and decentralized humans as a subject,” said Somerville. “I think she’s really badass, considering that she persisted in her art career regardless of the fact that she was rejected from the art community at the time due to her unique approaches to art and non-traditional lifestyle.” By the end of the semester, students will also have visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art, taking in a broad survey of 19th-century artists, including Girodet, Ingres, Bonheur, Degas, Cézanne, Valadon, and Seurat.

Students responding to a humorous comment about the painting they are examining.
ART 343 students examining works in the Princeton University Art Museum Classroom (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)