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News Remembering Wayne Craven: A 2010 Interview

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To honor the life and career of Professor Emeritus Wayne Craven, the Department of Art History shares “Building the Field of American Art History: An Interview with Wayne Craven,” originally published in the 2011 issue of Insight.

Portrait of Professor Wayne Craven.

​(Photo by George Freeman)

Emeritus Professor Wayne Craven does not need presentations. A renowned authority in American nineteenth-century art, he was among the pioneer scholars of his generation to establish the field of American art as a legitimate subject of scholarly investigation. His teaching and many publications contributed to making the Department of Art History at the University of Delaware one of the prime national centers for the study of American art and culture. Among his books, “Sculpture in America” (1968)—which grew out of an exhibition of American sculpture he organized at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York—is the most thorough survey of American sculpture to date. His “American Art: History and Culture” (1994) has become a classroom standard. His other publications include “Colonial Portraiture in America” (1987); “Stanford White: Decorator in Opulence and Dealer in Antiquities” (2005); and “Gilded Mansions: Grand Architecture and High Society” (2008).

Dr. Craven received his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Indiana University, and was awarded a doctorate from Columbia University. During his long teaching career at the University of Delaware he held the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Chair of Art History. He was the recipient of the distinguished Francis Allison Faculty Award and served as Chair of the Delaware State Arts Council. In 1995, he was elected to the prestigious College of Fellows of the Philadelphia Athenaeum, and in 2008 UD conferred upon him an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters Degree (see Insight 2009, back cover).

Dr. Wendy Bellion, Professor of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American art, sat down with him in the fall of 2010 to talk about his long and fruitful career. The following are excerpts from the interview.

Wayne Craven speaks to Wendy Bellion.

​Wayne Craven and Wendy Bellion in conversation at the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection in Morris Library. (Photo by George Freeman)

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 history?

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 faced?

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 the program?

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 days.


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, Wayne?

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, too.


WB: Wayne, you have maintained such a busy schedule of research since retirement. Is there a secret to staying so busy after retirement?

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.

This Page Last Modified On: 5/12/2020 9:55 AM
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To honor the life and career of Professor Emeritus Wayne Craven, the Department of Art History shares an interview originally published in 2011.

To honor the life and career of Professor Emeritus Wayne Craven, the Department of Art History shares an interview originally published in 2011.

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  • Department of Art History
  • University of Delaware
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  • Phone: 302-831-8415