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Janetta Rebold Benton: Art History Alive at Pace University

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Dr. Janetta Rebold Benton, Distinguished Professor of Art History, Pace University (Photo by Kevin Yatarola)

The wonderful Janetta Rebold Benton is lecturing again at the Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts at Pace University in Lower Manhattan. Those in the know will reserve the dates: February 19 and 26th and March 5th and 12th. Presently a Distinguished Professor of Art History at Pace University, she has been teaching there since 1986. She is a scholar and author of international renown with too many accomplishments to list here. Those in attendance at her lectures will learn a great deal about art in a short period of time, made to feel even shorter because Dr. Rebold Benton is so very entertaining.

In a fascinating conversation we had with her at the Met Museum, we discussed lecturing, teaching and many other topics that day.

Ellen Dobbyn-Blackmore: Why do you think you ended up in art? What is it that art says to you or does to you?

Janetta Rebold Benton: I don't have a precise, concrete answer. It is how I live. I just gravitate to it automatically. I do like beauty. I'm geared toward the visual and towards what I see rather than what I hear. There are all sorts of things that I am not. I am not a Foodie. I don't get out a lot unless I am the one onstage. I travel extensively. I leave in less than two weeks, I have another trip coming up. I'm geared to what I see.

EDB: Do you like teaching?

JRB: I do. I don't like grading papers but I like the students. I really like the students and I like the people in my audiences.

[Speaking of lecturing on travel tours]

I did six trips for the Met. I really like doing it. I like the cruises and the land trips. Both have their advantages. I give PowerPoint lectures on the ship or in the hotel, on what they're going to see. Then, if something goes wrong, I'm called on to fill in and speak on site.

I was on a trip to northern Italy and we were going to see Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper at the Maria della Grazia. I was sound asleep on the bus and they came to wake me up saying, "Janetta! The guy didn't show up! Will you talk about this?" And will you do that however many times because they'll only let a small number of people in at any one time in that space where they can inhale but not exhale, apparently.

EDB: I want to go on one of these cruises with you!

JRB: They're really fun. The people are nice. I was very worried initially that people would be mean to me because they're very high end. The one I did just the New Year's before for the Met, the main event in Russia was a New Year's Eve gala ball at Catherine's Palace in St. Petersburg. When you've paid for that you expect an outstanding experience. It's intimidating from my point of view. These are all people who are knowledgeable and it's never the first trip for anybody. They're wealthy, bright and educated but their area of expertise is in something else. They've also done their homework. I send them a reading list and they actually read it.

EDB: If only all your students could be like that.

JRB: The Honors College students are like that. They apologize if they're late... the others, not so much.

EDB: Do you have students that you've maintained relationships with over the years?

JRB: Oh, yes. They email me and when they have children they send me pictures. I get cards from them. One just made a generous contribution in my name to the Honors College.

If you are lucky enough to go to the lectures you will see Dr. Rebold Benton in person delivering such bon mots as the following from her book, Art of the Middle Ages. On Duccio's Maestà altarpiece she writes:

The Maestà altarpiece consisted of this large panel, predella panels (small panels attached below the main panel of an altarpiece) and small scenes painted on separate panels on the back of the altarpiece. These were intended to be read like a story. The predella panels include the Nativity with the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel. The arrangement is traditional, with Mary in red and blue, larger than everyone else, aloof and queenly. The stable is unstable: contrary to optical logic, both the ceiling and the roof are seen. When you see the piece it is obvious that this representation of a physical space is not possible in the real world.

Discussing a sculpture of Moses by Claus Sluter in Dijon, she writes:

A dignified Moses is accompanied by other Old Testament prophets around the wall. All the figures are massive in their proportions and are clothed in abundant drapery carved with deep undercutting to create a contrast of light and shade. The high level of realism, including details such as wrinkles in the skin, shows Claus Sluter to have had complete mastery of his medium, although the Old Testament prophet wearing eyeglasses shows that his concern for realism did not extend to historical accuracy.

As you can see from these excerpts, Dr. Rebold Benton's witty asides are a delightfully playful way of engaging her audience while giving them the gift of sharing her extraordinary breadth of knowledge. When asked who comes to her lectures, she replied:

A lot of the people have followed me from the Met but there are all sorts of people. There are people who call themselves my irregulars and there's another group that call themselves my groupies. People have signed up for the Spring Lectures already. I love these people. I know there's a large number from the Met because I always walk on stage and say "Ladies and gentlemen, good morning!" and they've taken to yelling back at me, "Good morning!" When they did that at the Schimmel, I knew where those people were from.

February's lectures will be on Raphael and Renoir, respectively, while in March she will take up Frank Lloyd Wright and Frida Kahlo. Dr. Rebold Benton's lectures are truly memorable. Months after taking our ten year old son to one he still likes to talk about all the things he learned "from the funny lady who knows everything about art."