My Summer Research: Emily Talbot in Paris


By Emily Talbot, PhD Candidate
Jan 07, 2014 Bookmark and Share

farewell dinner

Emily Talbot with U-M Arts in Paris students at a farewell dinner in Montmarte.

The four-month summer break at the University of Michigan affords graduate students like myself ample time to pursue research and other activities outside of Ann Arbor. This year I was fortunate to be able to spend much of my time abroad, where I conducted preliminary dissertation research, studied French, and worked for the Michigan in Paris study abroad program.

I began the spring term in Paris, where I dedicated most of May to visiting local museums. I specialize in nineteenth-century European art, and the permanent collections at many Parisian institutions are a treasure trove. But happily, my trip this summer coincided with a number of temporary exhibitions that focused on somewhat lesser known artists and art movements within my field. These included a survey of the Italian Impressionists group Les Macchiaioli at the Musée de l’Orangerie, a retrospective on French painter Eugène Boudin at the Musée Jacquemart-André, and a wide-ranging exhibition of nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century German art at the Louvre that helped contextualize related artistic practices in France and England in the same period.

In June I moved into the classroom, attending a month-long intensive language program at the Institut Catholique. The Catho is known for its dual focus on grammar and oral comprehension, which is particularly helpful when you spend most of your time in an English-speaking country. It was also nice to “warm up” with French in preparation for my position as program assistant for the Michigan in Paris program, which began at the end of June. In this position I assisted History of Art Professor Howard Lay with the logistics and administration of the six-week study abroad program for University of Michigan undergraduates.

This year’s theme—Arts in Paris—traced multiple histories of the city using sites ranging from the Roman baths at the Musée de Cluny or the medieval fortress at the Château de Vincennes to the nineteenth-century cabarets of Montmartre and the still-functional Parisian sewers. Using these sites as our classrooms, the course tracked the use and re-use of major urban spaces, seeking to understand how the visual language of art and architecture offers an entry point into interpreting the history and politics of Paris in a given period. It was a crash course in art history for the students, and a crash course in teaching for me! Leading a daily tour of the “greatest hits” of Paris—while negotiating the crowded period rooms at Versailles or the noisy traffic at the Place de la Bastille—offered plenty of new challenges for me as an instructor. Yet the thrill of lecturing in front of the paintings I usually teach through power point cannot be overemphasized!

After the study abroad program concluded in early August I turned towards my research, which focuses on techniques of composition in mid- to late-nineteenth-century painting, photography, and prints. I am particularly interested in exploring the implications of pictorial production for contemporary theories of Realism and Naturalism. After studying the extensive collections of Realist and Naturalist painting at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, I traveled further afield to the cities of Nancy, Besançon and Ornans to visit museums with collections of painting germane to my dissertation project. Viewing Émile Friant’s La Toussaint (1888), I was delighted to discover that some of the compositional idiosyncrasies I noticed in reproduction are even more striking when viewing the painting in person. There are also delightful surprises to be made when traveling to provincial museums, such as two unfinished paintings by Jules Bastien-Lepage hanging on the walls of the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nancy that provided fascinating insight into the artist’s layered approach to surface finish.

In mid-August I traveled to England for the last leg of my European adventures, where I examined an archive of mid-nineteenth century wood engravings by the Dalziel Brothers in the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum. One scholar has posited that this printmaking firm sourced many of its illustrations from photographs, using a technique of shading and tonal variation that rendered the original image quite noticeable. Although I found little evidence for this argument in my examination of the prints, this, too, was a useful discovery as I further define and narrow the scope of my dissertation project.

In the last few weeks of August I returned to the United States to complete research I began last summer on the art collection of the Silvestre family: artists, collectors, and drawing masters to the Dauphin from the late-seventeenth through late-eighteenth centuries. I am seeking to understand the relationship between two collections of art owned by this family in collaboration with the research of History Professor Dena Goodman into the family’s shifting social and professional networks in the aftermath of the French Revolution. The Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles is particularly rich in historic auction catalogues and collector files, so I spent two weeks in the library studying the annotated catalogues and tying up the loose ends of my research.

I returned to Ann Arbor in September, ready to move forward with secondary source research for my dissertation and attack my first season of fellowship applications. It was a varied and intellectually rich summer!