Founding director of British Art Center honored

Jules Prown, left, and Paul Mellon ’29, center, tour construction of the Yale Center for British Art in April 1974.
Jules Prown, left, and Paul Mellon ’29, center, tour construction of the Yale Center for British Art in April 1974. Photo by Chantal Fernandez.

Today in Chicago, Professor Emeritus of the History of Art Jules Prown will be honored for his contributions to the study of the history of art at the College Art Association’s annual conference. The founding director of the Yale Center for British Art, Prown oversaw the construction of the legendary building — Louis I. Kahn’s last design — and through his teaching and writing has greatly advanced the study of American art and material culture, according to the Association’s Web site.

“We are so proud of him,” said Jock Reynolds, director of the Yale University Art Gallery. “This is a well deserved award. He is at the top of the field of his profession, and I’m sure I’m one of many people at Yale who would agree.”

Prown came to Yale in 1961, teaching both British and American art and serving as curator of the American art collection at the gallery. In 1966, Paul Mellon ’29 donated his collection of British art to Yale, as well as funding for the establishment of the Yale Center for British Art. Prown was appointed the center’s first director and charged with advising then University President Kingman Brewster on the choice of an architect for the construction. Prown recommended Kahn, who had built the Yale University Art Gallery 15 years earlier. Kahn died three years before construction was completed in 1977, and Prown assumed much of his role in finishing the center.

“[Prown] really in many ways made the whole foundation for the institution and its intellectual profile, as well as working with Kahn and Mr. Mellon to develop the building,” said Amy Meyers, the center’s current director, who is in Chicago for the conference.

Prown said they aimed to make the center a “real life space” for great art and a humane addition to the Yale campus, through a design that puts emphasis on light.

“We wanted it to be a museum appreciated both for its aesthetic quality and also as a scholarly research facility that added to the intellectual mission of the University,” Prown explained. “[The center] is not just a specialized collection created because a wealthy collector wanted it there.”

Over the years, the center has moved precisely in the right direction, following the trajectory Mellon, Kahn and he had envisioned at its inception, Prown said. Today, the center is recognized for its active exhibition program and attracts scholars from around the world, he said.

Prown is also very involved with the center’s sister institution, the Paul Mellon Center in London, which provides a vital anchor to the British culture at the core of the center’s collection, Meyers said.

“Jules had the role of reconstituting that London study center as a part of Yale and as a part of the center in essence, providing a very vital link back into the culture that is the center’s focus,” she said.

In addition to his work with the Yale Center for British Art, Prown focused on the study of American art, giving it specific attention it had not received before, said Alexander Nemerov, chair of the History of Art Department. Nemerov, a former student of Prown’s, is also in Chicago and will deliver a speech at the award ceremony today.

“For many years American art was not considered a valid subject except really at Yale,” Nemerov said. “Jules Prown promoted and encouraged the study of American art.”

Prown also contributed to the development of material culture studies, focusing on the cultural value of everyday objects, Nemerov said. Prown’s “Material Culture” class in the late 1980s was famously popular at Yale. Nemerov, who took the class, said he analyzed a 1940s television set for an assignment and remembers other students who wrote about stoves and telephones.

“In my teaching, students learn to apply close formal analysis to both traditional and nontraditional objects, depending on the course,” Prown wrote in a 1995 article titled “In Pursuit of Culture: The Formal Language of Objects.” “In art history courses it may be [American painters] Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer. In a material culture course, as most recently, it may be lava lamps and rubber chickens.”

No matter what the particular field of study, Prown is above all known for his unique method of teaching. For example, Nemerov remembers a seminar he took with Prown about Winslow Homer, where they spent the entire first class looking at only one slide.

“He taught by teaching the power of close looking,” said Nemerov, who uses this method in his classes today.

Prown espoused the practice of closely reading art and relying on one’s own power of interpretation.

“That was what I needed to be told — to use my imagination to understand artifacts from the past, whether it be a painting or a television set,” Nemerov said.

In fact, many of Prown’s students are teaching American art across the country today and are continuing to use his methods.

“Generations of generations of his disciples mark the field,” Meyers said.

Though he no longer teaches, Prown is still involved in the American and British art community at Yale, Meyers added. Prown participates in the center’s scholarly activities and has been a key figure in the development of a conservation plan for the building, she said.

The College Art Association is an institution dedicated to supporting scholarship and teaching in the visual arts and humanities. This year marks their 98th annual conference.

Comments

  • Josiah Brown

    Congratulations to Jules Prown, who — in addition to the accomplishments described in the article — has played a leadership role in the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute for many years.

    Currently a member of the Executive Committee of the University Advisory Council for the Institute, he led seminars in the program five different times between 1980 and 2001. He has contributed to numerous related publications and both local and national initiatives over the years.

    He has also helped to encourage the participation of other Yale faculty members in the Institute, including Mary Miller, Alexander Nemerov, and Edward S. Cooke Jr.