Celeste Brusati is never far away from her clicker. Whether she
is wandering the dimmed, tightly packed Carlos Hall conference room,
or seated at the table discussing her perspectives on the slides
beamed on the wall to her right, Brusati keeps her clicker handy
so she can work the slide projector.
Slides are an art history professors best friends. They can
introduce master works of art to a class of students with a simple
The slides through which Brusati is clicking on this particular
Thursday afternoon are of paintings by Johannes Vermeer, the prime
subject of Brusatis art history seminar, The Art of
Each week for three hours, Brusati leads her small groupjust
four students and a pair of auditorsthrough a tour and discussion
of Vermeers art.
Vermeer was a 17th century Dutch painter who, while much renowned,
remains quite mysterious. He completed fewer than 40 paintings.
Because of that minimal portfolio, Brusati is able to introduce
her students to all of them, and discuss each in depth in class.
Students also view examples of other Dutch artists for comparison.
Despite his relative lack of production, Vermeer is one of the most
admired artists of his time.
I think he is an artist who doesnt embrace the common
language, said Brusati, Lovis Corinth Research Professor in
Northern European Art. Instead, he calls it into question,
or at least uses it in a way that invites the viewer to ask some
Not much is known about Vermeers lifehis religion,
for example. Was he a Catholic or wasnt he? He married one,
but did he convert? His works definitely have religious undertones,
but from what perspective did he see things? Pro-church? Anti-church?
One thing thats clear is that Vermeers symbolism and
allegory are much more subtle than his contemporaries. A slide Brusati
showed her studentsof a Peter Paul Reubens painting in which
the Roman god of war Mars is centrally featured, surrounded by fireis
a good example of this.
Vermeer didnt title his paintings, either; the rather straightforward
names they have now (The Milkmaid, The Music Lesson,
The Allegory of Painting) were all attached by others.
The artists work may be so subtle, in fact, that his symbols
may have been personal ones, understood by only one or two people,
Brusatis students read nine books on the painteralthough
the one she wrote on Vermeer in 1993 is not one of them. The perspectives
of the authors often are contradictory, and bouncing from one interpretation
to another is part of the students journey.
Students have had to write two papers and design a virtual exhibition
of Vermeers work. They had to provide a layout of their proposed
exhibition and explain the concept behind it. The order in which
the pictures were to be hung, as well as floor plans of the viewing
space, were the primary components.
This month Brusati, associate professor of the history of art at
the University of Michigan, is finishing up her year-long stay as
Corinth professor. The professorship was created so that Emorys
art history department could host a visiting scholar whose expertise
covers northern European art, an area in which no current Emory
faculty member focuses.
Brusati certainly qualifies. A faculty member at Michigan since
1990, she previously taught at Yale and earned her masters
and doctoral degrees at the University of California, Berkeley.
She has taught dozens of graduate and undergraduate courses on Dutch
Brusatis work is connected to that of Emorys previous
Corinth professor, Walter Melion. His research concentrated in the
late 16th and early 17th centuries of Dutch art. That was a time
when painters were beginning to explore different representations
of their subjectsthe art of reflections, for example.
Brusatis focus on the mid-to-late-17th century deals with
the artists who are heirs to the language that began the generation
before, men like Vermeer and Samuel von Hoogstraten, a painter and
art critic about whom Brusati wrote a book in 1995.
Vermeers subjects often are presented in luxurious settings
with lots of tapestries and pleasing if not ornate furnishings.
This is a bit misleading.
The idea thats were looking at ordinary, everyday
objects is not exactly correct, Brusati said. Youre
looking at lemons that were exotic fruits in the 17th century, as
opposed to things you can buy at the market now.
Some of the objects depicted in Vermeers work, like porcelain,
could not have been made in Holland during that time period, Brusati
said, and would have had to be importedprobably at a great
The students are looking at things that may have been worth
more than the paintings they are depicted in, Brusati said.
As part of her time at Emory, Brusati delivered two lectures: Vermeers
Pearls: Reflections on Pictorial Illusion and Disillusion,
in November, and All Eyes: Fictions of the Eye-Witness in
17th Century Dutch Art. Each was followed by a colloquium
in which Brusati was able to discuss her opinions in a more informal
The lectures I gave here were extremely helpful, Brusati
said. Ive gotten to push my own thinking forward and
instigated a lot of conversation with my colleagues. Also it showed
me were their work and mine [intersect]. That was important.
Brusati said she has enjoyed her time on campus. Ive
led such a charmed life this year, she said, teaching
one course a semester and not doing much administrative work. And
this is a very congenial department.
Her graduate students in Ann Arbor, though, are never too far away.
They frequently contact her by e-mail and often send faxes of dissertation
or thesis chapters.
Brusati had planned to work on an introductory text on Vermeer
during her time here but has since changed her focus a bit. She
has moved her research into an investigation into pictorial and
textual discourse of art in the 17th century, of whichVermeer was
a crucial part. The idea is not to look just at what was painted
in the 1600s, but what was written about those paintings during
Brusatis second line of research while Corinth professor
is that of the beholden in Dutch art. Her thinking involves
the perspectives of both the eyewitness (the person viewing the
painting) and the beholder.
Until recently, vision has not been regarded as a cultural
phenomenon, she said. Theres art, and then theres
observation. Whats very clear in the 17th century is an understanding
of the artificiality and the pictorial nature of vision.