A History of the Art Department at Vassar College, from the 1930s Onward

From Professor Emeritus Eugene Carroll, Central Italian Renaissance Art 1965-1999

In the second half of the 1960s, the Art Department, with its studio program and Art Gallery, began to experience serious problems. At the same time, the college as a whole was forced to confront equally serious issues that were shared with other women’s colleges in the Northeast. Vassar’s faculty, students, and administrators were keenly responsive to these issues, which took considerable time because they touched so deeply upon the lives of so many. Most of these problems were also of national importance. Perhaps this importance was especially true at Vassar College, which, after all, was not just one place of its kind. It was the most famous women’s college in the United States.

With the September 12, 2009, opening of the renovated Art Library, originally built in 1937 from plans by John McAndrew, the Art Department has again, as though in commemoration of its successful reinvention in the last decades, the fine architectural setting for the study of the history of art for which it had once been especially remarked upon within and outside the college. Circumstances that advanced this distinction were not just local or national in origin. In the 1930s, the history of art and its position at Vassar were defined and set in place by men and ideas from a troubled world abroad.

Between 1936 and 1959, three esteemed German art historians taught for extended periods in the Art Department as part of a program initiated by the fifth president of the college, Henry Noble McCracken. A plan was officially requested by the faculty in 1939 to increase the number of teachers and students of foreign birth throughout the college in response at first to the persecutions in Nazi Germany. Richard Krautheimer arrived at Vassar in 1937 after two years of teaching at the University of Louisville to give courses in the history of architecture, and remained here until 1952. The medievalist Adolf Katzenellenbogen, who studied primarily the iconography of French Gothic sculpture, arrived in 1940. After the war, in 1952, Wolfgang Lotz replaced Krautheimer and taught mainly the history of Italian Renaissance architecture until his departure in 1958 along with Katzenellenbogen.1

Comprising the Art Department was also a studio arts program, here already at the very founding of Matthew Vassar’s educational enterprise for women. From the mid-1940s to 1974 it was under the instruction of Lewis Rubenstein, and then also Alton Pickens, who arrived in 1956 and retired in 1982. An Art Gallery had also been created when Matthew Vassar acquired a collection of prints and drawings and American paintings from the Reverend Elias Magoon in 1864.

From 1943 until her retirement in 1965, Agnes Rindge Claflin was the chairman of the Art Department. In 1962, she conceded the running of the gallery to a new director from outside the college, whose appointment included the teaching of American art as a member of the department. Thus was preserved the closest association of the Art Department with the Art Gallery that continued until 1991. Coming to Vassar in 1931, the same year as Professor Claflin, Leila Barber, an Associate Professor, inherited the chairmanship of the department. There was no tradition of an elected chairman, but there was at the time that I arrived in the fall of 1965 an established tradition of the positions within the department that formed the basis of its curriculum. I replaced a departing Assistant Professor to teach the history of Italian sculpture from the Late Gothic period into the seventeenth century. The history of architecture was now taught by Alfred Fraser who had just returned from a stay in Rome. Architectural drawing and design had its separate part-time instructor although from 1931 to 1937 the architectural courses, history, drawing, and design, were all taught by McAndrew alone. Miss Barber was responsible for the history of Central Italian Late Gothic and Renaissance painting, and Pamela Askew the painting of Venice from the Renaissance to the eighteenth century along with the painting of the Italian Baroque. The art of ancient Greece and Rome had its professor. An instructor gave courses in Byzantine Art and the art of the Middle Ages, with limited success. The painting of Holland and Flanders was taught in two courses and in an upper level seminar, as was nineteenth and twentieth century painting and sculpture largely in France and Germany. It is obvious that the fullest coverage was of European art and was dominated by the long history of Italian art, painting, sculpture, and architecture, from the Late Gothic Period through the Baroque. So complete and successful was the teaching of Italian art that praise of the Art Department from the outside was largely due to it. This could at times sound almost like a rebuke as when once there came to me the report of a New York professor of the history of Italian Art at the graduate level who commented that the trouble with students from Vassar in his classes was that they left him with little more to teach them. This remarkable undergraduate education in the history of Italian art was due not only to the traditional study of Italian art everywhere in the United States enhanced now by the arrival of superb European scholars, but in particular at Vassar to the direction given it by Claflin. An example of her influence might be recognized in having the history of Italian sculpture taught so extensively. I doubt that any comparable American college had such a detailed series of courses in sculpture. In 1929, Claflin published her first book, Sculpture, and while it was on modern sculpture - she was a friend of Alexander Calder who created “Agnes’s Circle” for the gallery – her interest was a preference that led to the founding of a whole line of courses on Italian sculpture. In The Dictionary of Art Historians: “Claflin is considered more an art teacher than a scholar. Krautheimer wrote ‘she never aimed at being a scholar herself… [she was] an amateur in the best sense.’” It was her sophisticated love of art and the care of her students that was largely responsible for the high quality of education in the Art Department. However, the affection she received from her students was not always mirrored in the faculty, who were inclined to see her as times as a tyrant.

The Art Department’s young and energetic faculty – aside from Miss Barber the full-time art historians in the fall of 1965 were all between the ages of 30 and 45 - took on enthusiastically, if not always easily, the task of filling the frequent vacancies in its teaching staff that followed upon Claflin’s retirement. After my appointment at the very end of Claflin’s last year to begin teaching after she retired, Fraser left to teach in New York. Richard Pommer, a fine scholar of Italian architecture, replaced him in 1968. Though Claflin was described primarily as a teacher, she was aware of the importance of scholarship from the scholars who came to the department from Germany. Miss Barber upheld this tradition under her chairmanship.

To depart from teaching and learning for a moment, there were other important traditions that need to be mentioned. These underlay the function and life of the faculty in the fulfillment of the requirements of the curriculum and the quality of instruction. One tradition was reported to me by Pommer, and by Miss Barber separately, just as he was settling into his new position. Miss Barber heard from the college administrator in charge of faculty housing that Pommer had rented a small college apartment. This announcement prompted her to believe that the new architectural historian, who had a wife and a young child, was not going to settle in Poughkeepsie. She was seriously jarred by this “deceit” and had immediately to set the matter straight with him. Full-time faculty members lived in Poughkeepsie and were obliged to be on call all week, including weekends for important events. When it came time to inform Pommer of his transgression, she learned from him that he no longer lived with his family and therefore needed only a small apartment in Poughkeepsie for himself alone. She was profoundly relieved to hear that this residential tradition, which may have been a part of her Vassar life for thirty-five years, had not been broken. Not long afterwards, it was!

There were other equally well-established traditions that could now and again appear to take precedent over matters of educational importance. Before the president’s annual September reception at Alumnae House to welcome new members of the faculty throughout the college, the Art Department chairman gave a dinner party for the entire department. When dinner was over, all of us walked in small groups to the reception. The memory of this has something of the aspect of a procession along Raymond Avenue to a half-timbered Valhalla. Men wore jackets and ties; women dressed up. Even if the weather was still summery, sandals on bare feet were not quite yet in style, at least for men. The day was darkening as we entered Alumnae House, and brightly lit inside were small groups of people chattering away as waiters served drinks and walked around with platters of hors d’oeuvre. Even for new members of the faculty who might have found it daunting to face so many unknown colleagues, the occasion was a lively scene of the college as a whole and one that continues to this day. There was still an Art Department dinner of reduced size in the early 1980s and then it ceased. But the tradition may be revived. Last year, an Art Department picnic was given by the chairman at home and while not a formal dinner before the President’s Reception it had an aspect of cordiality suggesting that the social glue that once held us all together in Miss Barber’s time might again be effective.

While the Art Department was more or less homogenous so far as age was concerned, there was enough of a range in age and of years of teaching at Vassar, and for some, of their undergraduate time here, to allow for some sense of stratification, especially between academic ranks. In the ’60s, however, there was never any feeling of the latter either at Art Department meetings or at parties. This seemed to be the case throughout the college. On Fridays and Saturdays there were always faculty parties at which the departments and the academic ranks drank and ate together with ease. That one would eventually be judged for promotion and tenure by some of these same professors never threatened a good time. It was fun to be here. Then it could be less so when academic positions across the country decreased, and criteria for granting and denying tenure were brought into question, such as the 50% rule for tenure in any one department.2 When untenured instructors and assistant professors defined themselves as Junior Faculty, the party was over. Around the same time, however, faculty members in the same department could now marry. The old ban against this was lifted, probably for the first time in the Art Department. I was one of the witnesses at this marriage.

The creation and disappearance of traditions may be in the very nature of the hybrid American undergraduate college. There used to be a grade talked about as The Gentleman’s C that I was pleased to find at Vassar College, “The Ladies C” that was never given its name. It was earned by students who knew how much they wanted to learn and how much was not so necessary. It was a pleasure to witness the ease with which they attended to their studies, and to all else besides that was humorous and amusing and full of life. Around 1970 I kept a neat desktop in my Taylor Hall office. One morning I arrived to find that it had been cleared and covered with a large sheet of brown wrapping paper. On this was replaced every object that had been there, but now with a line drawn around each and given a name. The trick was to live with it as long as possible before it disintegrated and had to be disassembled.

Some traditions were social and entertaining, others parietal and protective and at times easy to get around, I’d heard. But tradition also held sway with certain courses, and in the design of curricula. In the Art Department it was Art 105-106, the Introduction to the History of Art, that was for generations a significant tradition in and of itself. Well before the sway of Italian Art, the introductory course had its fame within and beyond the college. It was held in the largest lecture room in Taylor Hall that could seat over two hundred students. A folly it might have been in any other department to schedule a course that met at the same time, from 11:30 to 12:20. I heard once that the registrar protected this time slot to guarantee the enrollment of Art 105-106. In the mid-1960s this two-semester course was a survey only of European art, although courses in American art and then Asian art were taught at the 200 level. Except for the instructors of Asian and American art, every art historian in the department lectured in this course and had one or two of the small conference sections that went with it.

Everyone in the department also participated in the designing of the course, not only the faculty but also the secretary and Nick DeMarco, the head of the slide room. After the faculty chose the works of art that were to be shown each semester, for changes were always made to accommodate the wishes of new faculty, the extensive syllabus had to be typed and proofread, and often changed again, before it was sent off to be duplicated and assembled. The secretary and DeMarco had also to spend hours making up the enrollments of the conference sections from the class schedules of all the students in the course. The mid-term quiz had to be invented by those who had lectured, and the final had also to be made up by an even larger group leading at times to extraordinary squabbles. These sessions may have been the most difficult in the department, and were occasionally so stressful as to lead to actual rudeness.

Difficult, too, at times could be the making of the decisions for outside speakers so that everyone’s field was represented. Invitations of friends to speak were fought for. When in the end the choices were made and the speakers came to give their talks, everyone in the department went to them. Many lectures were outstanding and attended by people from the Poughkeepsie community. If the lecture was at 8, a faculty dinner would precede it; an earlier talk could be followed by a party instead of a dinner. Artists especially attracted large audiences, the most memorable lecture being that given by the painter Ad Reinhardt in 1967 who toyed with the audience to see just how long it would politely remain in its seats while he indicated in his “Artist Among Artists” lecture that he was about to show slides. He never did but kept on talking until gradually the audience bit by bit walked out, at which point Miss Barber, in the front row, leaned over to Pommer and firmly whispered to him to go up on the stage and “get him down from there.” Pommer handled it straight forwardly giving first sincerest thanks to the speaker for his presentation.

At the end of June of 1968, Miss Barber retired, and when the new academic year began in September her position and line of courses were also gone. The important history of Italian painting from Giotto through the High Renaissance and beyond was passed to me which meant, of course, that the history of Italian sculpture of an even longer period that I had been teaching for three years now had to be integrated with the material for which Miss Barber had been responsible. Why these changes came about I do not know as in the academic year 1967-68 I was still an untenured Assistant Professor and not party to such a decision. About the same time, Pommer began to give courses in the history of modern architecture alternating with classes in the history of architecture in Italy from the Renaissance to the eighteenth century. These changes were not especially felt by the other faculty of the Art Department who continued as they wished in the shaping of their courses. Elsewhere, however, the changes at Vassar went far from unnoticed however much they may have been forgotten forty years later.

Like those changes in instruction and curricula that came about in the 1930s and 1940s due to world events, the remarkable shifts of interest and energy of almost every kind of social and educational endeavor that took place at Vassar College in the late ’60s and early ’70s did not originate here. In 1964, Alan Simpson was installed as the president of the college taking over from Sarah Blanding who had been the first female head of Vassar College. Two years later, Simpson began discussions with the president of Yale University about moving the one hundred and five year old college in Poughkeepsie to New Haven as the female appendage to Yale’s all male college and university. The sexual dissatisfaction of Yale and Vassar students was the primary motivation of this scheme along with the supposition that without such a drastic move Vassar’s candidate pool would become increasingly reduced and second rate, a situation that would become intolerable in a college that was justly proud of the intelligence and ambitions of its young ladies. Swept up in the national mood for freer sexual possibilities, the college fought to survive but the ultimate destruction of this remarkable American institution that a move to New Haven would have guaranteed was fought and overcome by the faculty under the leadership of Nell Eurich, the Dean of the Faculty. The charter of the college was amended in 1968 to include the instruction of men, and an exchange program was designed for male students from Northeast schools to attend Vassar College. The first men appeared in the spring of 1969, and included several who took courses in the Art Department. In 1970, the first class with men arrived, and the student body could no be longer addressed as “Ladies” by those of the faculty, Miss Barber clearly among them, who had earlier done so.3 In less than a decade, several of the men had completed their Ph.D. degrees and gone on to fine positions in the history of art elsewhere alongside their female classmates.

No less than any other department and to a greater extent than might have been thought likely the Art Department contained among its members two of the most dedicated women in regard to organizing and teaching for over a decade material that would lead to the creation of the Women’s Studies Program at Vassar College in 1979. While it’s conception has been linked to the introduction of men into the student body, it, like the latter, can now be seen to be related more fundamentally to what was happening in the Women’s Liberation Movement throughout the country and not merely here on the Vassar Campus. In 1979, one of these colleagues asked me to be the respondent to papers given at the Women’s Session at the meetings of the College Art Association of America in Washington where participants came from many colleges and universities. Within the Art Department, as I would assume in other departments, Women’s Studies could be presented by whomever wished to do so in his or her courses but its presence as a method of study was possible now at every level of instruction from the survey course to the senior thesis.

Here one might think that the same was true of any form of gender study and for the same reasons. The very moment of the introduction of men at Vassar coincided almost exactly with a climax of Gay Liberation in the Stonewall Riots in New York of June 28, 1969. This was immediately evident at Vassar among the few gay men exchange students, and members of the first freshman class of men and women entering in 1970. Although just as passionate a movement, Gay Liberation was to find its place more slowly at the college than the Women’s Liberation Movement and less as an academic than as a social and political pursuit through the Gay People’s Alliance already founded by 1982. However, even without a Gay Studies program various departments began to offer courses in gay and gender issues taught within their various disciplines. In the Art Department, gay, lesbian, and gender issues were more likely to be introduced within the context of a period in which they had a part, from ancient Greece and Rome to the present in America and abroad, with whole seminars eventually taught around the significance of these issues themselves.

Following nine demands made on October 22, 1969, related to their experience at Vassar, members of the Student Afro-American Society a week later took over Main for three days. Already in the spring of the year, there was established the Urban Center for Black Studies in downtown Poughkeepsie, and Kendrick House across from the Raymond Avenue entrance to Vassar was selected by the students as the African-American Cultural Center and black students’ residence. It was in Kendrick House that I, as the second chairman of the Committee on Black Studies, met with the members of SAS. A Black alumna’s history of this period has remarked upon the stimulus for this activity as having begun with the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in April of 1968. The SAS became the Black Students Union that created a major in Black Studies that evolved into the present Africana Studies Program co-directed at present by an Associate Professor in the Art Department. From one part-time instructor teaching courses in the arts of Africa there are now two members of the faculty and a curriculum that also includes courses in African American arts and artifacts included within the distribution requirements for the major in art and in Africana Studies.

Already prior to the rise of the study of African and African American art and related to the separation of the direction of the art gallery from its former part-time teaching of the history of American art, the curriculum of American art was expanded to a complete complement of courses taught by a full-time member of the faculty. With time and a variety of associations within the college, including very possibly the full recognition of African American art within the Art Major, American Art was further extended to include the art of native North Americans.

The history of the inclusion of Asian Art in the offerings of the Art Department, and as choices within its major, was preceded again, as in the 1930s and ’40s, by international circumstances. In 1965, Asian Studies was founded at the college by six core participating faculty with the commitment to increase the Asia-related curriculum at Vassar College. Already in the 1950s, the rise of China became a threat that needed to be understood and faced along with the upcoming Chinese Cultural Revolution launched on May 16, 1966, and lasting until Mao’s death in 1976. Increasingly the Vietnam War tested the political fortitude of the country, prompting the annual marches on Washington against the Vietnam War of the second half of the 1960s. Bus loads of Vassar people headed for the capital to register their protests. The Asian Studies Program set out to educate Vassar College students for the national need to understand this other half of the world, and its effect upon Americans, like the shootings at Kent State University on May 4, 1970.4 The program’s participants requested the addition of Asian art to its program and a part-time position was created in the Art Department in response to this wish. In 1994 the teaching of Asian art became a full-time appointment with courses on the art of a variety of Asian cultures at all levels of instruction and cross-listed with Asian Studies.

Such it was that the Art Department shaped its curriculum over several decades to meet the awareness of its students and faculty to the variety of shifts in the culture that had shaped its curriculum differently just a while before. Still, in many ways it is quite the same place as when I first arrived by continuing to belong to the world at large. However much the Art Department had its singular reputation some decades ago, it seems now a more complex and interesting place in which to teach and to learn than it was in the unsettled and unsettling decades of the recent past. The range of instruction has been extended and the varieties of approach enlarged. Furthermore, it serves the students especially well in presenting the visual arts beyond the Art Department’s major requirements and within so many other areas of study.


  • 1. I have honored with their names only faculty members that are deceased, After first appearances I give only last names, except for Miss Barber whose actual presence seems to me still to remain in place.
  • 2. In the early ’80s when I was chairman I called the president of the American Association of University Professors to ask about the lack of cooperation among department members when discussing issues that should have mattered to all of us. He replied that it was the trend now for faculty across the country to be more concerned with their own careers and scholarship than with the well being of the institutions that employed them.
  • 3. “Ladies”, of course, was an in-house title. Elsewhere it was “Vassar girl”, as in Tennessee Williams’ “The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore” of 1963 (see Charles Isherwood’s review in the New York Times of January 31, 2011, of the current revival in New York where Flora gives Blackie, her efficient secretary, this title, derisively).
  • 4. In a course on ancient art at the time there was reason to lecture on the excesses of the Roman military and the relevant reliefs on the Column of Trajan and the Arch of Septimus Severus.