Posted: February 26, 2009
The first thing to say about Paul Staiti, who holds the chair of Professor of Fine Arts on the Alumnae Foundation, is that he could just as easily be given a faculty award in scholarship. He is an internationally recognized authority on American painting from the colonial period to the Gilded Age. He is much in demand as a curator, having coorganized, in 1995, the magnificent exhibition on the colonial portraitist John Singleton Copley for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, a show that was enthusiastically reviewed by, among others, John Updike. In 2003, on the occasion of the bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase, Paul cocurated an ambitious exhibition for the New Orleans Museum of Art, called “Jefferson’s America and Napoleon’s France.”
In addition to catalog essays for these exhibitions, Paul’s many scholarly publications include a book on the artist Samuel F. B. Morse, inventor of the Morse Code, and articles on the sea pictures of Winslow Homer. He is currently working on Gilbert Stuart’s portraits of Washington, and how they were used as political propaganda for the Federalist Party during the 1790s. Paul is also working on a book on the art and culture of the Federal Period, tentatively titled American Hands and American Minds: Art and National Identity in the Age of Jefferson.
Faced with a coin toss between scholarship and teaching, we decided to listen to his students. Paul’s courses on American art and Hollywood film are wildly popular. “This is my fourth class with this instructor,” writes one student, “so that speaks for itself.” His courses are literally eye-openers for many students. This seems particularly true of his film courses. “I knew NOTHING about film before taking this course,” one student writes of his Introduction to Film, “and through this course have decided to become a film studies minor.” Another remarks, “Films that I had originally dismissed when I was younger are now some of my favorites.”
Paul’s art students appreciate the way he weaves in material about the social and political context of paintings without losing the aesthetic thrill of the work of art. Students are in awe of his capacious knowledge of painterly detail. “He can even tell you about specific houses in a landscape painting,” writes one student. Another simply writes that Paul is “an absolute painting nerd.” And yet another confesses: “My pencil usually goes a mile a minute just trying to copy down all the things he tells us!”
The voice that comes across in Paul’s writings and public lectures--lucid, precise, informed, clever--is the same voice that mesmerizes his students. His voice, in fact, garners particular praise--“melodic,” according to one student, and “incredibly soothing,” according to another. You might wonder why there's so much attention given to Paul's voice until it dawns on you that he teaches most of the time in a darkened room.
There is much more to say about Paul’s teaching--his students can’t praise his sense of humor enough, the way that his jokes, for example, “make certain artworks stay in my mind.” Students vie with one another to capture the nuances of his paradoxical teaching style: “fluid but linear,” “incredibly informal and detailed,” “both scholarly and approachable.” One student’s words seem to sum up the consensus regarding Paul Staiti as scholar-teacher: “I believe he deserves to be awarded for best instructor of the year.” We couldn’t agree more.