Tyson Scholar Amy Torbert is a little more than half way through her nine-month research residency at Crystal Bridges. For today’s post, she takes time off from her dissertation to offer an inside look at what it’s like to be a Tyson Scholar of American Art. –LD During the past four years, Crystal Bridges has hosted 15 Tyson Scholars. These graduate students, professors, curators, and independent scholars have come from across the country to spend three to nine months in residence at the Museum researching and writing on aspects of American art. With the establishment of this fellowship program, Crystal Bridges joined institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which have similar programs to develop new ideas about the history of American art and to support new research that alters our engagement with specific works of art.
During our temporary stays at the Museum, we are each given an office or carrel in the curatorial wing of Crystal Bridges’ Library, and housing in the nearby scholars’ residence, located less than a mile from the Museum. Affectionately but inaccurately nicknamed “the Farmhouse,” the house includes four bedrooms, six bathrooms, a large kitchen, four gas fireplaces, three living rooms, numerous walk-in closets, speedy wireless internet, a three-car garage, a swimming pool, and room for a pony (although, sadly, ponies are not currently welcome). A serious perk of one’s time as a Tyson Scholar, the house is not only a surprisingly luxurious space to live, but it also shapes interactions among one’s fellow fellows. Its large, comfortable common areas are the perfect spots to settle into long conversations, and the spacious kitchen and dining areas encourage communal dinners.
Tyson Scholars come from all stages and types of art historical careers. I’m a PhD student in the art history department at the University of Delaware, where I am writing a dissertation titled Going Places: The Material and Imagined Geographies of Prints in the Atlantic World, 1770–1840. This project developed out of my curiosity about prints like Bostonians Paying the Excise-Man, or Tarring & Feathering (1774). Why would a London printmaker and publisher have produced this object? What messages would it have expressed to its buyers? Where would it have been sold, and who would have purchased it? And how did the print’s medium affect its meanings? In the course of answering these questions, my dissertation investigates the business of publishing prints in America and England from 1760 to 1790 and analyzes the political stakes and commercial motives of representing acts of American rebellion in print. (Curious about answers to those questions? Head over to Common-Place.org to read an article I recently published on the topic.)
As any graduate student will tell you, our all-consuming goal is to finish the dissertation. If you spend enough time with us, you too will pick up our habit of muttering mantras such as “the perfect is the enemy of the good” and “the only good dissertation is a finished dissertation.” The Tyson fellowship provides the greatest luxury imaginable — the time and space to fulfill those mantras. I arrived at Crystal Bridges in September with the goal of completing drafts of my final three dissertation chapters during my nine months here. This goal explains why, most days, you’ll find me writing frantically at my desk.
But in spite of the pressure of these deadlines, Crystal Bridges offers many compelling reasons to get up from my desk and engage with its great collection and setting. It would take a much stronger person than I to resist temptations around Bentonville, such as dining at The Hive and exploring the trails that crisscross Crystal Bridges’ grounds. On these walks, I’ve enjoyed discovering plants native to the region, such as the very accurately named Beautyberry, and becoming acquainted with the deer that live in the fields and woods around the Farmhouse.
As I work to strike a balance between time spent researching and time spent writing, every so often I give into the lure of spending time with objects in the collection. Depending on the questions I hope to answer, I might spend time in the galleries, examining a painting up close to understand matters of technique and construction. Or I might consult the painting’s object file, where I would hope to find answers about its provenance, exhibition history, or conservation treatments. Crystal Bridges might not seem like an obvious place for a scholar of eighteenth-century American and British prints to study, as the Museum does not yet hold a significant collection of this material. But finding thematic connections between my specific objects of study and paintings and sculptures in the collection has been one of the most satisfying discoveries of my time here. Prints like Tarring & Feathering depict the America’s founding moment, when many colonials began to view themselves as American instead of British. Certain paintings in Crystal Bridges’ collection, such as John Taylor of Bath’s Wooded Classical Landscape (1772) or Charles Willson Peale’s portrait of George Washington (ca. 1780–82), also allude to this process, helping us to understand the shifting meanings of American identity and burgeoning nationalism in an era of revolution.
The Tyson fellowship also provides opportunities to share our research and scholarship with audiences outside the Museum and outside of Arkansas. A highlight of my time here has been getting to present my research to an engaging group at the Tyson headquarters. In addition, the endowment established by the Tyson family and Tyson Foods, Inc. generously includes a stipend to support travel. This autumn, I visited Toronto and Worcester, Massachusetts, to present papers at the American Studies Association annual meeting and the American Antiquarian Society, respectively. I was also able to examine previously unpublished watercolors and unique impressions of prints at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Public Library, and the New-York Historical Society, such as watercolors by the antiquarian Rufus Alexander Grider that demonstrate the evolution of Tarring & Feathering from an emblem of dissolution in eighteenth-century London into a contested icon of patriotism in nineteenth-century America.
I’m exceedingly grateful for my time as a fellow so far, and I look forward to seeing what the next five months hold!