A Plethora of History

Students in Alex Werrell’s Honors Western Art History class recently visited the Yale University Art Gallery

Less than an hour from Taft’s campus is an extraordinary collection of art—a gallery housing more than 300,000 pieces. Founded in 1832, The Yale University Art Gallery is the oldest university art museum in America. It is a center for teaching, learning, and scholarship and is a preeminent cultural asset for Yale University, the wider academic community, and the public, including students in Alex Werrell’s Honors Western Art History class, who visited the Gallery this semester.

“The experience of seeing art in person makes it deeply personal,” says Elise Taylor ’24. “Museums hold a plethora of history in the form of art and artifacts; the visit to the Yale Museum made me feel like it is my civic responsibility to learn about history.”

Classroom learning came to life as Werrell and his students married their knowledge of specific pieces—and of art, in general—with the works before them in the Gallery.

“As we walked in the ancient wing of the Gallery, we spotted marble sculptures, reliefs, pottery, and mosaics,” recalls Isabella Nascimento ’25. “It was interesting to see the traces of pigment on several reliefs, which provided a real-life example of our ongoing conversation about what art was back then and how it is interpreted today. Likewise, walking along the gallery, we discussed how the political and cultural might of empires is reflected in art itself and the preservation of these pieces, like the ancient city of Dura-Europos and the Roman Empire.”

Connecting with specific pieces began with Shadows of Liberty, a piece by Titus Kaphar.

“Kaphar is an artist working now in New Haven whose series From a Tropical Space we have studied closely,” notes Werrell. “A piece we viewed features a characteristic Kaphar approach: a classical, traditional portrait of George Washington as military leader is subverted by the blown-out hellscape in which he is situated and by the strips of paper hanging from the president’s face and neck. Just as Martin Luther sought to reform the Church, Kaphar seeks to reform history and hammered the strips with rusted nails directly through the canvas; each strip has the name of one of the hundreds of men and women and children Washington enslaved at Mount Vernon.”

Students also visited the Photography Lab at the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage, where they learned about conservation practices and sciences at Yale. They had a chance to see massive drafts of Edwin Austin Abbey’s ceiling murals, taxidermized reptiles and birds, photographs from the earliest days of photography, and even a few Renaissance pieces being touched up with lapis lazuli. Students also learned a lot about the challenges facing photography collections, including how the spectacular array of photography paper textures, thicknesses, tones, and more alter a photo.

“It was an incredible opportunity to learn more about the science behind art conservation and preservation,” says Isabella. “We took a tour of the labs and were able to closely follow the research currently being done on the development of analogical photography. Overall, visiting Yale was one of the most interesting experiences I have had while studying at Taft.”

Photo Captions:

1: A class selfie in front of a floor mosaic from Gerasa (modern Jordan) depicting the Egyptian cities of Alexandria and Memphis. Yale excavated the mosaic at a school-sponsored dig in 1932.

2: Elise and Isabella in front of Vincent van Gogh’s Le café de nuit.

3: The class in front of one of Titus Kaphar’s pieces, Shadows of Liberty.

4: Joseph Stella’s abstract depiction of the Brooklyn Bridge, one of the first landmarks the young painter saw when he arrived in New York on a ship from Italy.

5: Martin Wong’s La Vida, a depiction of a Lower East Side — Loisaida — tenement.

6: In the Photography Lab at the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage, learning about photography paper and the spectacular array of textures, thicknesses, tones, and more that alter a photo.

7: Werrell guiding the class through consideration of Marcel Duchamp’s infamous piece from 1915, In Advance of the Broken Arm.


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