Dean of the Faculty Amy Jessen-Marshall announced the appointment of Chris Witcombe as Sweet Briar’s first Barton-Laing Professor in Art History moments after President Jo Ellen Parker revealed the creation of the Eleanor Barton and Aileen “Ninie” Laing ’57 Endowed Professorship in Art History during the College’s academic year opening convocation. The endowed chair is a gift from Winnie Leigh Hamlin ’58 in honor of two former art history professors.
“Such gifts provide Sweet Briar with a way to recognize and celebrate the contributions of professors who have dedicated their careers to Sweet Briar and whose teaching has been meaningful to many generations of students,” Parker said. “Such senior colleagues truly follow in the footsteps of Professors Barton and Laing who are honored by this gift.”
Witcombe has taught at Sweet Briar for nearly three decades and is a prolific scholar, having published more than 30 articles and essays and three books, including the award-winning “Print Publishing in Sixteenth-Century Rome: Growth and Expansion, Rivalry and Murder” in 2008. A fourth book is due out next year and three others, including a novel, are in progress. His third book is an interactive digital iBook Author textbook for the Apple iPad, “The Visual Experience of Art.”
Witcombe has long embraced digital technology in the classroom and began teaching web-based courses in 1996. He created and maintains an award-winning, Google-top-ranked Art History Resources website, which will celebrate its 17th anniversary in October. The site receives over a million visitors a year. He has also produced a popular series of podcasts called “Art History in Just A Minute,” available on iTunes.
A native of England, Witcombe studied painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence, Italy, before moving to the U.S. to study art history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He earned his Ph.D. at Bryn Mawr in 1981.
Being named to the chair is immensely gratifying, Witcombe said, because it reflects the College’s strong support for faculty scholarship as well as teaching. And, he says, one is informing the other.
He and his colleagues are making changes to the art history program at Sweet Briar, some of which are coming out of his research and writings on vision and perception over the past decade. The new approach is intended to ensure students acquire the ability to analyze and understand how images work and how they affect us. One goal is to better articulate the value of image studies and bring them to the fore more than they have been in the past, as an essential skill students need to have today.
Coming at this time, the professorship is important to him because it doesn’t just acknowledge his past work, it is recognition of present and future efforts, too, Witcombe says. “Personally, it’s a big boost and I feel newly motivated and excited to move my work and ideas forward.”