Paoletti to Retire After Nearly 4 Decades at Wesleyan

Olivia DrakeFebruary 13, 200910min
John Paoletti, the Kenan Professor of the Humanities, professor of art history, will retire from Wesleyan in May.
John Paoletti, the Kenan Professor of the Humanities, professor of art history, will retire from Wesleyan in May. (Photo by Olivia Bartlett)

For 37 years, John Paoletti has explored the ideas and histories that produced both well-known and not so well-known works of Renaissance and modern art with thousands of Wesleyan students.

This May, Paoletti will retire from Wesleyan’s Art and Art History Department, ending a longtime career of teaching artists such as Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Donatello, and Michelangelo as well as the patronage of the Medici family.

“I will really miss working with the Wesleyan students and faculty colleagues across the curriculum,” Paoletti says from his office in the Davison Art Center. “Both have always been keenly critical of the issues at hand and have asked tough questions aimed at arriving at clearer understanding of whatever matter was being discussed.”

Paoletti joined Wesleyan in 1972 as an associate professor of art history. At the time, he was one of two art historians on campus; today there are nine. When Paoletti leaves Wesleyan in June, the area of contemporary art that he has taught in addition to the Italian Renaissance will be taught by a visiting Luther Gregg Sullivan Fellow, who will be hired for a non-renewable two year contract.

“Today Wesleyan’s Art History Program has an undergraduate curriculum quite unusual for a college of its size,” Paoletti says. “Our program teaches not only American and European art, but also the traditions of south Asia and Persia, east Asia, and Africa. Very few college programs have that kind of range with faculty as active in research and engaged in teaching as ours.”

Paoletti says very few students come to Wesleyan specifically to major in art history. However, once they are exposed to the material and to the teaching of the art history faculty, “they become fascinated with the ways in which art of all periods and places is bound to social, political, and cultural history,” he says.

Jesse Feiman ’05, previously a history major, changed his major to art history after taking one class with Professor Paoletti. Feiman, who works at the Art Institute of Chicago, says Paoletti encouraged him to become involved in the Davison Art Center collection, where Feiman began a life-long love of prints, and helped him secure internships at the Wadsworth Atheneum and the Art Institute.

“His approach, his style of teaching, and his obvious command of the subject instantly drew me to him, and his knowledge and experience led me in many directions which I had never previously considered,” Feiman explains.” He gave me more care and attention than I had from any teacher previously and always made himself available to discuss the work I did, even outside of his classes.”

In addition to teaching, Paoletti served as the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Visiting Professor at Villa I Tatti, the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies, in Florence, Italy last fall. There, he aided post-doctorial scholars in research, while completing a book on Michelangelo’s David and beginning another on the Medici family’s use of art and artistic patronage to solidify their role as de facto rulers Florence in the 15th century.

Paoletti has written widely on the work of Michelangelo and the patronage of the Medici family, as well as on the art of the latter half of the 20th century. One of those articles was co-authored with Alexander Herman, ’03, and resulted from a term paper that Alex wrote for Paoletti’s course on Art Since 1945. Paoletti has also co-authored with Gary Radke one of the standard textbooks on Italian Renaissance art.

Between 1996-2000, he edited the major American scholarly art history journal, The Art Bulletin, and a year later, he received a fellowship to study at the School of Historical Studies, Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, N.J.

“I’m very thankful for Wesleyan’s sabbatical policy that has provided time away from campus to accept the Institute and I Tatti fellowships in order to pursue my research projects,” he says.

In 1997, Paoletti was awarded Wesleyan’s excellence in teaching award, and in 2003, the College Art Association, his national professional organization, honored Paoletti with the Distinguished Teacher of the Year award for art history.

The award comes as no surprise to Noah Hutton ’09, who like Feiman, says Paoletti had a hand in his decision to major in art history.

“Professor Paoletti is one of the most genuine and loyal teachers I have ever known, a true friend in the Wesleyan faculty who I credit with giving me the courage to explore a wide range of courses and pursuits here at Wesleyan, within the ARHA program and beyond,” Hutton says. “He has repeatedly given me the opportunity to take what I have learned in the real world and apply it to special projects, tutorials, and other extracurricular work, and for that I have the utmost respect for him.”

Hutton recalls creating a 16mm film last year in Paoletti’s home, a project produced by the Wesleyan Film Cooperative. Away for the weekend in New York, Professor Paoletti entrusted Hutton with a key to his home and a crew of student filmmakers in tow.

“It may have been a small act on his part, but for me it exemplified a trust that has made me feel at home here at Wesleyan,” Hutton says. “A true ally in the faculty is what every student hopes for.”

On campus, Paoletti has served as chair of the faculty, a member of the faculty Advisory Committee on promotions and tenure; a presidential search committee; the Art History Program’s curriculum committee; chair of his department, and the faculty merit and tenure process committees.

He also served as guest curator for two major exhibitions in the galleries at Wesleyan, at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, and at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven. He is currently serving on the acquisitions committee of the Department of Prints and Illustrated Books of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Paoletti also has lectured widely, and has been a regular speaker at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He particularly enjoys encountering his former students in these audiences.

“The different ages and experiences of these audiences from our undergraduates provide a new set of challenges for making the historical and artistic materials come alive and have meaning, not only for the time in which they occurred, but for the present as well,” he says.

After retirement, Paoletti will continue his research and writing and he looks forward to have more time to renew his work in the field of contemporary art as well as to complete outstanding writing projects in Renaissance studies. He intends to spend much of his time In New York City where his wife Leslie works, but he fully anticipates maintaining his connections with Wesleyan and his colleagues.

“They’ve been not only my friends, but my teachers as well and I hope that they will continue to challenge my thinking in the future as they have in the past,” he says.

Professor Paoletti’s colleagues in art history have organized a symposium on Renaissance art and history in his honor that will be held May 1-2 in Russell House. Twelve historians and art historians – two of whom are Wesleyan alumni – will present short papers on topics related to Paoletti’s own research on Renaissance sculpture during the two-day symposium.

“Professor Paoletti will be sorely missed by the art history department and his students,” Hutton says. “I will miss a mentor and teacher who has helped me, and many others, add great breadth to our own experiences here at Wesleyan.”