Research Interests

Professor Sidlauskas aims to build new historical and conceptual frameworks for understanding modernism: its theories, its objects, its reception and its continuing relevance for contemporary art.

Biographical Notes

In the field of art history, the word "formalist" is often used as a club to denigrate what is perceived to be dazzling visually but empty of substance. It is a critical stance that was solidified in the early 20th century by Roger Fry, for whom the painter Paul Cézanne was the summa of modern painting and John Singer Sargent its nadir (a prejudice that persists to this day). Professor Sidlauskas writes about both these painters, working to unsettle an idea that persists not only in art history but in a number of fields within the humanities and social sciences: that "form" is a superficial distraction that masks, preempts or outright obstructs "meaning."

Professor Sidlauskas's past research has included a book about the domestic interior in 19th century painting as a site for deeply contested notions of bourgeois subjectivity; an essay on Manet's inexpressive but commanding faces; a study of the competitively "painted" skin of the professional beauty, Madame X by Sargent; and a book about the portraits Cézanne painted of his wife, Hortense, who served as his most significant 'other'

In a new book project underway, Professor Sidlauskas considers the "medical portrait" of the 19th and early 20th centuries, with a special concentration on photographs of the mentally ill, analyzing how the formal conventions of portraiture—both painted and photographic—inflected the "authenticity" of the clinical image. In Skins: John Singer Sargent's Metamorphoses, she argues for a new way to conceptualize and historicize this artist's virtuoso paint application. Rather than explain it as Gilded Age excess, she argues that in his later portraits, the artist orchestrated those layers of paint to operate as dynamically intersecting skins. The figure woven into its setting seems forever suspended in a state of simultaneous becoming and disintegration in which skin, hair, and fabric dissolve only to be reconstituted as other, more ambiguous substances: a visualization of Darwin's observation that we are all "of the same flesh." In the post-Darwinian world, most assumed the existence of profound—even if invisible—connections among all organic beings. Writers of every stripe—Walter Pater, Grant Allen, William James, Henry James, and Vernon Lee—all members of the Sargent's extended circle, theorized about the nature of those connections. The artist's vigorous, transformational paint handling dissolved the distinctions between his subjects' physical "selves" and the trappings that consolidated their social identities. In painting a social class that was ceding its authority, he invented visual structures for things that were falling apart.

Selected Publications


  • Body, Place, and Self in Nineteenth-Century Painting, Cambridge University Press, 2000
  • Cézanne’s Significant Other: The Portraits of Hortense, 2009, University of California Press. Winner of the Motherwell Book Award for 2009, presented by the Dedalus Foundation

Chapters in Books:

  • The Spectacle of the Face: Manet’s Portrait of Victorine Meurent,” in Thérèse Dolan, ed. Perspectives on Manet, forthcoming, Ashgate Press.
  • Not Beautiful: A Counter-Theme in the History of Women’s Portraiture,” in Re-Framing Representations of Women, ed. Susan Shifrin, Ashgate Press, London, 2008, pp 183-198
  • Degas and the Sexuality of the Interior,” in Barbara Miller Lane, ed. Housing and Dwelling: Perspectives on Modern Domestic Architecture, London and New York: Routledge, 2007, pp 178-196
  • Sargent's Interior Abysses,” in The Built Surface: Architecture and Pictures from Antiquity to the Millenium, London: Ashgate Press, 2001. Christy Anderson and Karen Koehler, editors, pp 31-53
  • Psyche and Sympathy: Staging Interiority in the Early Modern Home,” in Not at Home: Resisting Domesticity in Early Modernism, Christopher Reed, ed. London, Thames and Hudson, 1996, pp 65-80.


  • “ Afterward” for Skin and Bones: Parallels in Contemporary Fashion and Architecture, curated by Brooke Hodge, Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, October, 2006, pp. 46-49
  • "Emotion, Color, Cézanne" (The Portraits of Hortense), www.19th centuryart-worldwide, September 2004. E-journal published by the Association of Historians of Nineteenth-Century Art, edited by Petra Chu, Seton Hall University.
  • “Painting Skin: John Singer Sargent’s Madame X,” American Art, published by the Smithsonian Institution, November, 2001, pp. 8-33.
  • “Contesting Femininity: Vuillard’s Family Pictures.” The Art Bulletin, March, 1997, pp 85-111.
  • “Resisting Narrative: The Problem of Edgar Degas’s Interior,” The Art Bulletin, December 1993, pp 671-696.
  • “Creating Immortality: Turner, Soane and the ‘Great Chain of Being’,” Art Journal, Summer 1993, in issue on Romanticism, edited by Nina Athanassoglou-Kallmyer, pp 59-65.


  • Consultant for THIRTEEN/WNET series Art Through Time: A Global View, funded through the Annenberg Foundation. Interviewed on camera for two episodes: Portraits and The Body. To be broadcast in the fall of 2010. Streaming videos available at

Exhibition Review:

  • “Review of the ‘Uncanny Spectacle: The Public Career of Young John Singer Sargent,” at the Sterling and Francine Clark Museum, Williamstown, curated by Marc Simpson. In Association of Historians of Nineteenth-Century Art Newsletter, Vol. 4, no. 2, Fall 1997.

Exhibitions and Exhibition Catalogues:

  • “Connoisseurship Redux,” in Master Drawings (1800-1914) from the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, for the Arthur Ross Gallery, University of Pennsylvania, April-June 2004.
  • Intimate Architecture: Contemporary Clothing Design, ex. cat., MIT Committee on the Visual Arts, 1982. Original photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe. ; Two-part essay on the exhibition and catalogue in the New Yorker by Kennedy Fraser, Nov. 8 and 15, 1982
  • Clothing by Artists, May 1982, Hayden Corridor Gallery 
  • Rooms: An Installation by Richard Artschwager, Cynthia Carlson and Richard Haas, ex. cat., MIT Committee on the Visual Arts, 1981. Exhibition and catalogue.
  • Arts on the Line (with Katy Kline). ex. cat., MIT Committee on the Visual Arts, 1980. Exhibition and catalogue. Co-curated: Local Visions, works on paper by Boston area artists, January 1982
  • Assisted with: Aldo Rossi: Between Inventory and Memory, May 1981 and Furniture by Architects, January 1981.

Works in Preparation


  • John Singer Sargent’s Metamorphoses and the Un-Making of History. A full-length reformulation of Sargent’s late portraits, 1890-1912, in which the painter gives a radical form to the end of the 19th century notion of subjecthood.
  • The Medical Portrait: The Visual Culture of Medicine 1886-1946. A study of the artfulness of the “objective” genre of Anglo-American medical photography, using a variety of case studies from the documented practice of an English obstetrician, a private asylum outside London, and the early years of plastic surgery in America and England.


  • “Time, Body, Neurasthenia: Dr. Playfair’s ‘Before and After’ Pictures,” article related to the book The Medical Portrait, as above.
  • “Transformation in Sargent’s Late Portraits,” article related to Sargent’s Metamorphoses, as above.
  • “A Theory of Practice: Cézanne’s Drawings.” An attempt to develop a theory about Cézanne’s practice of drawing.
  • “Degas’s Androgynes: The Late Harlequins en travesti,” an analysis of six pastels of the 1890's in which Degas’s own anxieties about gender and sexuality are analyzed within the context of contemporary preoccupations with the “masculinity” of the New Woman.
  • “Mirror Mirror: ‘Identification Against the Self and Female Spectatorship,’ analysis of a form of female viewing that was first documented by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who wrote about the way fashionable Parisiennes disdained Cézanne’s portraits of his wife, exhibited in Paris in 1907. The practice is deliberately provoked by contemporary artists such as Jenny Saville and Marlene Dumas.

Courses Offered

Undergraduate Classes:

  • Rethinking the Portrait: seminar. A consideration of an historical form that has enjoyed a resurgence in contemporary art, considering American and European images from 1800 to the present.
  • The Art of the Body: The Visual Culture of Medicine (with Tanya Sheehan): An interdisciplinary course about the intersection of science and visual culture, intended to appeal to undergraduates from the sciences, social sciences, humanities, and fine arts.
  • Realism: undergraduate lecture. The course begins with the art of the French Revolution and concludes with the archetypal “realist”, Gustave Courbet. Works of art are located in larger historical and theoretical contexts.
  • Impressionism: The emphasis is on the emergence of leisure to 19th century painting, as well as the political and architectural changes in Paris that made it such a key subject in early modernity.

Graduate Classes:

  • The Body in 19th Century Art: The representation of the body is historicized and located in a wider cultural, social, and economic context.
  • Portraiture: Theory and Practice: An examination of historical and contemporary theories about portraiture, in relation to the work of modern artists in a variety of media.
  • Methods in the History of Art: Introduction to key historical and theoretical texts.