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Discovering Art History at Yale With Prof. Jules Prown

Irene Katzias: Hey Everyone, welcome back to the Evergreen Woods Podcast. Today, we are so excited to have Professor Jules Prown, who is a retired Professor of History of Art at Yale University. He will be speaking on his career as an Art Historian. So without further ado, please welcome professor Jules Prown.

Jules Prown: Ok, I am Jules Prown. I am a retired Professor of the History of Art at Yale. I was the Paul Mellon Professor and also was, am now, and continue to be, Senior Research Fellow at the Yale Center for British Art which is where I have an office. I was born and raised in Freehold New Jersey, which is in the center of New Jersey. It’s the capital of Monmouth County. It was a very small town under 5,000 people. We lived on the outskirts. There’s a photograph of me as a child with a haystack right in the field behind me. Now its all development, of course.

I went to Lafayette College. I majored in English. I thought I was going to be a journalist, but one summer I went out to the University of Wisconsin, which many of the students at Lafayette went out there for the summer to take some courses that weren’t offered at Lafayette. And also for a good time it was 5,000 women and 2,000 men on the shores of Lake Mendota. It was a very pleasant summer. Well, while I was there one of my fellow students took me to a lecture on Art History, which I had never heard before. And I was really blown away by the images, by the art. And from that point on art really became the center of my life. I took, there weren’t many courses; there was only one little course at Lafayette which I took and went to as many museums and looked at as much art as I could. I still didn’t know what I was going to do when I got out of college because my interests ran in several different directions. And I was having coffee with some of my professors one afternoon and I asked them, I said I really didn’t know what I’m going to do right after I got out of college. I’d go on to graduate school but I didn’t know which one. Journalism or business or art. And they said, well you discovered that you love art and you like to live well – I had a yellow Plymouth convertible at the time. And they said you aught to be an art dealer. I said oh that sounds great, how do you do that? And they said well you go to Harvard. I said ok. In those days that’s what you could do. You make up your mind to go to Harvard, you pay your tuition, and you go to Harvard. And I did. I went to Harvard for a year to get a Master’s. Went to New York and began working with an art dealer. And worked as an art dealer for two years. What I discovered was that I really wasn’t cut out to be an art dealer. I was ok buying things but not good at selling things. And the positive side of what came out of it was that I discovered the field of American Art. American Art really wasn’t seriously taught at Harvard. Harvard didn’t consider American Art to be like really great art like France or Italy or Greece. And so it wasn’t taught there. And if I wanted to continue to study Art History which is what I wanted to do. I wanted to get out of dealing and go back to research. There weren’t any Universities then, at that time, that had a research professor of American Art heading up a program the way they are now; there are a good deal, a good number of them, especially here at Yale. But there was a program at Winterthur, it was at the University of Delaware connected to the Winterthur Museum, it carried a fellowship and was a good way to get out of New York and get back into the field. So I went to Winterthur for two years. It was very good learning and studying not only American painting but also all of the decorative arts: architecture, and the European background really a broad picture of American art. And after I finished that, I went back to Harvard in order to continue on and get a, my PhD. In the latter part of my work at Harvard as a student and while I was writing my dissertation I also worked as assistant to the director of the Harvard Art Museum, the Fogg Art Museum. Because I wasn’t clear in my mind whether I wanted to be a teacher or a curator, or a director, or preferably something that really could combine my interests both in teaching and in dealing directly with objects. I wrote my dissertation on the greatest American Artist, John Singleton Copley and that over the next few years was developed into a two volume book that was published by Harvard University Press. And after getting my degree I came to, in 1961, I came to Yale both as instructor in the History of Art and in American Studies and also at the same time as Curator of American Art at the Yale Art Gallery, especially what was the Garvan collection, this great major collection of American Art and all decorative arts at Yale (silver, furniture…).

During the time I was curator I also wrote my really big book on American Art that largely came out of my teaching and its called American Painting. In 1968 after Paul Mellon gave his collection of British Art to Yale along with the funds to create a home for it, I was appointed director of what became the Yale Center of British Art by Kingman Brewster, the president of Yale. And he said that my first task was to create a building, find an architect and build a building. What I was really concerned about in looking for a building to house the Center were things that I picked up from my work at Harvard where, particularly with the director of the Fogg Museum as his assistant, we used to talk a lot about museums and what made good museums and not. And I was particularly concerned first and foremost in a museum about light. I had strong feelings about natural light being used to illuminate works of art directly. Paintings are really tough objects and they’ve been lit by daylight for centuries and in the 20th century there was an aversion to daylight. They tended to like to use artificial light that they could control completely. I didn’t like that. I liked natural light coming in. And I liked it coming into rooms. Not to large undifferentiated spaces that could be cut up in all different ways, but into real rooms and realize that the places where I really like looking at works of art best of all were domestic in character. Phillips Gallery in Washington, the Frick in New York, The Gardener in Boston, even the Fogg buildings were almost like villas or Italian, large Italian aristocratic buildings, were essentially houses, they were domestic, and the Morgan in New York, that’s another one that I like. I really like to look at paintings in those. So I wanted light, I wanted rooms, and I wanted a building, a place that would be domestic scale. And I look around for architects who seemed to have those qualities and the one that I liked best was Louie Kahn. I interviewed Kahn in 1969 and on my recommendation Yale hired him. And Kahn went to work on the building, the Yale Center for British Art, right away. He died in 1972 unexpectedly. At that time the building had only risen up until to the second floor. So it was not finished for another three or four years. It was his last building. Once the building was completed in 1976 I stepped down as Director and went back to full time teaching, deciding that I really would rather be a teacher than a Museum Director. And that’s what I did for the next almost 25 years. I finally retired at the end of 1999. I moved to an office, which is my current office, in the Yale Center for British Art continued on as Professor Emeritus but as Senior Research Fellow at the Center. And during my early time at the center I wrote on its early history and also the early history of the Paul Mellon Center in London. Which were two institutions, both of which I had established as Founding Director. I also wrote a book on the architecture of the Center, Kahn’s Design for it, and what we wanted and how it was built. And another large book that I co-edited that was on Louie Kahn and conversation. That book – The Louie Kahn and Conversation and my history of the Yale Center and my earlier big book on American Architecture; several of my books are at Evergreen Woods in the library. I just now finished a small book on Kahn’s final architectural philosophy as expressed in his final building – which is the Yale Center for British Art. That’s a book that actually I am reading the final – I hope the final – design text right now and it should be out within a year. And that’s where I am at now. Thank You.