WB: Wayne, thank you for agreeing to this interview today.
You trained as a medievalist, which seems almost as far from the field of
American art history as you can get—but of course, there was no American art
history when you began at Delaware. How did your graduate training prepare you
for teaching and scholarship in American art history?
WC: Well, being a medievalist, in the middle of the 20th
century, how arcane and esoteric can you get? One of the things that attracted
me about American art is that it was the art of my own people. I felt a
closeness to American art that I never felt toward French Gothic sculpture. I
came here right out of Columbia. I was hired as, if you can believe this, the
Henry Francis DuPont Instructor in Art History. How I got into American art was
quite by chance. Alan (Gowins) and I, being the only art historians, could have
a staff meeting if we passed in the hallway. One day Alan said to me, “Wayne,
we have to teach a course on American painting next semester, and I don’t want to.” I knew right where that left me! My second
semester, I did teach a course on American painting, and I can remember one
moment just so vividly: I had a beautiful [Albert] Bierstadt of Yosemite Valley
up on the screen; I looked up at that painting, and I was just struck dumb. It
was so incredibly beautiful. And from that moment on, my interest in American
art was genuine. Before long I had to make up my mind whether I wanted to
remain a medievalist or become an Americanist. When we brought in Bill Homer in
1966, I saw this as I think Bill did: as an opportunity. We invited George
Tatum to come down from Penn the next year, so then we had the three of us, and
I thought, that can be a pretty formidable program and attractive to any
graduate students in American art.
WB: How did you decide, as a team, to teach American art
WC: It worked out really well. I was interested in the
earlier stuff, particularly mid-nineteenth century landscape and genre
painting. I stopped about 1870 and that’s right where Bill Homer took up. And
of course, George Tatum was almost totally architecture, so other than when I
did the survey course, I never got into these other areas. The three of us just
worked beautifully together that way.
WB: Your comment about the Bierstadt is remarkable because
American art historians often find themselves in positions of being apologists
for the material they study. Yet your origins as an Americanist are connected
to this moment about the beauty of that painting.
WC: If someone wants to say there is no American painter of
the quality of Michelangelo, it would be rather pointless to argue. That does
not invalidate American art, however; it’s the art of the American people. It
is a fascinating story how that art is an expression of the American spirit.
And it is a unique expression. It may be strongly influenced by classical,
French, or English art, but there is something American about it. Don’t ask me
to define what it is.
WB: Your book “Sculpture in America” (1968) remains one of
the go-to resources in the field. Studies in sculpture seem to be undergoing
something of a renaissance right now, but my sense is that sculpture still remains
one of the underdogs in the field at large, not just in American art history.
Why do you think this might be the case, and do you see more opportunities for
scholars to work on sculpture in the future?
WC: There is plenty of opportunity. I have always been a
little mystified as to why sculpture was kind of a handmaiden to painting. It
may be in part a very practical thing. It is very expensive and difficult to
arrange exhibitions of sculpture, particularly when you are dealing with
life-size marble figures. When I did the show at the Whitney, I had the whole
second floor, but before I could put my sculpture in there, we had to call in
structural engineers to make sure that the floors would support the sculpture.
I didn’t want to come in some morning and find Hiram Powers’ Greek Slave in the
basement when I had left it on the second floor.
WB: Your textbook “American Art: History and Culture” (1994)
changed the way many of us think and write about American art history. Can you
talk about why you decided to write a textbook, and some of the challenges you
WC: I decided to write it simply because Bill Homer was
here, George Tatum was here, and Damie Stillman was here. I wanted to know
about the whole field of American art. And that’s why I wrote it. I had all my
colleagues at Winterthur doing the decorative arts. I went for thirty years
without opening my mouth about the decorative arts; I didn’t want to show my
ignorance. If you know you’re going to go into print, you make yourself learn.
There is a regimen, a discipline, you impose upon yourself. So it was really to
avoid pigeonholing myself and to get into some areas that I wanted to explore.
WB: Did your background as a medievalist sway your decision
to include architecture as a major component of the textbook?
WC: I think it helped me a great deal. In order to work on
Gothic sculpture, you must also work on Gothic architecture. The sculpture is
just part and parcel of the architecture. So I developed a certain sensitivity
to architectural form and space. The important thing is that when you are a
graduate student—I would say this is half the game—is developing good
methodology. I have always told my graduate students that one thing you want to
come out of here with is a good sound methodology. Borrow a little from this
professor, take what you like from that one, something else from this one, and
come out with your own methodology.
WB: How would you characterize your own methodology and the
ways you tried to teach those methods to your students?
WC: From the time I was an undergraduate, it has always been
contextual. I have always wanted to put the work of art in context. In my book
on colonial painting, the guiding spirit was to know the paintings and to know
the portraits, you must know the people. I really believed that scholars were
trying to interpret the paintings of the colonial period, particularly the
seventeenth century, by the wrong set of rules. They were trying to interpret
those portraits according to the sermons ministers preached and the gravestones
in the cemeteries. It just didn’t add up. The ministers were preaching about
the kind of life you should lead, not necessarily the kind of life people did
lead. So I wanted to get at what was their life really like: how much did
religion direct their lives, how much did middle class acquisitiveness
determine their lives—and a ship’s manifest told me more about the portraits
than a sermon by a minister.
WB: What was it about a ship’s manifest?
WC: If you look at a ship’s manifest there will be so many
yards of a certain kind of material: brocade, damask, silk, so many yards of
lace, so many dozen silver buckles for shoes. Well, they weren’t bringing those
things over here and then pitching them in the bay. They were bringing them
over because people craved them, and sure enough, those are the things that
show up in the portraits.
WB: Together with your colleagues at Delaware, you trained
so many of the people active in the field today as academics and curators. Can
you say more about working with your students?
WC: One of the things I liked about spending my career at
Delaware was that I got to teach both undergraduate and graduate students. The
graduate students keep you on your toes. There is an intellectual challenge in
the room when you are sitting around the seminar table with graduate students.
I grew through their questions.
WB: When you were teaching sculpture, did you find it
necessary to do field trips to get students looking at objects in the round?
WC: We did wonderful field trips, because unlike when you
are looking at paintings, you’re also going to be out in urban centers, in
parks, in cemeteries. I took my seminar to the Newark [N.J.] Museum, where Bill
Gerdts was curator, and he was already building up a collection of American sculpture.
And I remember saying to him—this was in 1963—are you going to write a book on
American sculpture? We need one. And he said no, I’m not going to write one.
And I said, then I am. That was really the launch.
WB: Can you say a few words about your relationship with the
Winterthur Program in Early American Culture? When did you serve as director of
WC: From 1965 to 1970.
WB: What changes did the program undergo at that time?
WC: That was a time when the whole museum field was
expanding. It was wonderful! State legislatures were just saying, here’s a
bushel of money—take it. Please, do you want a second bushel? But it was also a
time when we realized the museum field needed a discipline of its own. The
Winterthur Program was really meant to be a partnership between a university
and a museum. I went down, I think, in my first year as coordinator of the
Winterthur Program, to the Smithsonian, and the two men I talked to were fully
aware that there were all of these historical houses, museums, and societies
opening, and there weren’t the people to staff them who were properly trained.
I could tell them, we have got what you need. At that time we had up to five
fellowships in the Winterthur Program for each year; we had a two-year program,
so we had ten fellowships all together. Sometimes we had to scrap around; we
might only have seven, and we’d have to call Wendell Garrett at Antiques and
say, will Antiques pull up a fellowship for us? And they usually did. But when
I came back from that visit to the Smithsonian, I came back with ten
fellowships. That was for five [more] each year. We went from having a group of
ten Winterthur fellows to a group of twenty. Our fellows were leaving the
Winterthur Program to become directors, not curators! Those were the good old
WB: That brings me to the essay you wrote for [the journal]
American Art in 2000, “Venture Capitalists of the American Field.” You
looked at figures that had taken a leading role in financially supporting the
work of junior scholars. Do you still see a need for so-called venture
capitalists in art history today?
WC: I wouldn’t call them venture capitalists now. “Venture
capitalist” applied to a person with vision for an unproven field. They were
taking a chance. Today, there is a need for people because there has been such
a pull back from other sources. In the sixties, I could literally pick up the
phone and get a grant if I had a student who needed one more year to finish a
dissertation. Money is hard to come by now. There is a real need for people who
believe in the study of the history of our own country, and art is one of the
things we study.
WB: What kind of advice would you have for students
interested in American art history?
WC: The only advice I would give is to remember you are an
art historian. Keep coming back to the work of art.
WB: That’s very sound advice. What’s your next project,
WC: I’m working on the second half of “Gilded Mansions.” The
book was originally to be called “Gilded Mansions and Marble Halls.” And it was
going to be just too big. Now I’m doing the marble halls: the civic buildings, the
libraries, the art museums, the train stations, the department stores, the
hotels, the public spaces of gentleman’s clubs. I include the women’s clubs,
and while it’s hard to find anything on them, there were black social clubs,
WB: Wayne, you have maintained such a busy schedule of
research since retirement. Is there a secret to staying so busy after
WC: Two things. It’s what I love doing. And probably the
most important thing is that intellectual life does not stop with retirement.
WB: That’s a wonderful point, and a great one for us to end
on. Thank you, Wayne.