Welcome to Class: British Portraits: Identity, Empire, and the Museum
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Adam Eaker, who serves as associate curator of European paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and as an adjunct associate lecturer of art history at Barnard, is well acquainted with delving into the intricacies of paintings. Eaker has curated such exhibitions as “In Praise of Painting: Dutch Masterpieces at the Met,” which highlight his focus on northern European and British art from the early modern period.

Professor Adam Eaker with students at Sotheby's Institute of Art

Through his course British Portraits: Identity, Empire, and the Museum, Eaker invites students to engage with the professional art world through the lens of British portraiture from the end of the 17th century to the beginning of the 19th century. Eaker’s course offers students the opportunity to study some of the most famous artworks of the period, as well as influential and historical art texts written about 18th-century portraiture.

“I emphasize the contemporary relevance of this material, particularly as students think through questions of identity, race, gender, or sexuality,” said Eaker. 

With visual learning as a cornerstone of the course, Eaker brings students outside of the classroom and into galleries at museums like the Frick and the Met, where they are welcomed into the “behind the scenes” work of conservation studios. This offers students the opportunity to familiarize themselves better with the process of curating, researching, and conserving artwork.

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Students at The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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Students visited Sotheby's

Portrait of a Mughal Lady,” the Met’s recently acquired 1789 painting by Francesco Renaldi, served as a case study for Eaker’s class as students were allowed to study the portrait up close to understand the various levels of preparation it required before being placed on exhibition. Giving students the opportunity to connect the research with the process conducted at the museum by personally studying the unidentified woman in the picture is one of the many ways that Eaker’s course sheds the boundaries between apprentice and professional.

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Students viewed "Portrait of a Mughal Lady"

“Students are able to understand pictures as physical objects — things that have a lifetime, that have had many interventions made on their surface — and to really start looking in the way that curators do to unpeel the different layers of a painting,” said Eaker.

EAKER WTC-6 student viewing

On the opposite end of exhibitions, Eaker also brought students to Sotheby’s Institute of Art to expose them to the various procedures behind auctioning art, such as price evaluation and cataloging. “Very often, seminar discussions don’t take the art market into consideration,” said Eaker.

As part of their final project, students are expected to pick one painting that they encountered through their course readings and create an acquisition proposal for the Met’s collection.

“I want the students to be passionate and confident museum-goers who really feel entitled to claim space within museums and to have strong opinions about what they encounter there,” said Eaker.

To learn more about Eaker’s British Portraits: Identity, Empire, and the Museum course, watch the video above.