Art Historian Paul Hayes Tucker

Monet painting

September 2013

Growing up just outside New York City, Paul Hayes Tucker was never, in his words, "dragged around" around to art museums. It was an art history course at Williams College in the late 1960s that set him on the path to being the world’s leading authority on Claude Monet. He entered Williams planning to be a history scholar like his grandfather. Then he took a class taught by one of the college’s luminary art history professors and everything changed. An “absolutely spectacular” summer study-abroad program in Florence made him say to himself: “This is what I want to do.”

As a senior, Tucker was drawn to Monet’s work at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown. He always ended the tours he gave there with Monet’s Rouen Cathedral, the Façade in Sunlight, one of a series of 30 views, and dreamt of reuniting 20 of the paintings never seen together since Monet exhibited them in 1895. In 1990 he came close as the guest curator for “Monet in the 90s” when he reunited 11 of the canvases, more than had ever been seen together since 1895. The series paintings were exhibited at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) and other venues.

As a graduate student at Yale, where he earned his PhD in 1979, Tucker studied under art history scholar and Monet enthusiast Robert L. Herbert, a pioneer in developing the social history of art. Tucker’s dissertation focused on Argenteuil, the Paris suburb where Monet lived and painted during the 1870s. Poring over archival material he describes as “an historical and sociological goldmine,” he created a fresh narrative underlying Monet’s artistic choices in his Argenteuil paintings. This multilayered approach to the study of art, integrating history and biography, is a hallmark of his career as a teacher and scholar.

Tucker’s career at UMass Boston, which began in 1978, is studded with academic awards and honors, including three Chancellor’s Awards: one for Distinguished Service and two for Distinguished Scholarship. A prolific writer, he has authored numerous books, book chapters, articles, and museum catalog entries. He is in demand as a guest curator by artists, museum directors, and gallery owners worldwide, most recently for a Monet exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden that includes rarely seen paintings and re-creations of aspects of Monet’s flower and water gardens.

Artists from the 20th century, a period Tucker teaches at UMass Boston, and one he is keenly interested in, are an important part of his work. He was invited, for example, to curate exhibitions of—and write about—modern artists such as David Smith, whom he describes as “arguably the best American sculptor of the 20th century,” and Kenneth Noland, many of whose paintings are in the MFA’s collection. He modestly calls those invitations “leaps of faith, as people foolishly embraced me” despite his never having previously written about those two major artists.

Tucker is also the driving force behind Arts on the Point, UMass Boston’s internationally acclaimed collection of public sculpture. This unprecedented project grew out of Tucker’s desire to take advantage of the university’s spectacular Columbia Point location. He used his clout in the art world to obtain works on loan, then raised the funds to move and install them on campus. But when asked about his greatest legacy to the university, Arts on the Point is not his answer; instead he cites the thousands of students he has taught at UMass Boston, whose lives, he hopes, “have been altered, worldviews opened, hearts enlivened, and ways of understanding the world expanded.”

Currently working on his soon-to-be published college textbook Never Neutral Modern Art: Courbet to Pollock, Tucker remains energized by his artistic pursuits. In his recent visit to the studio of William Tucker (no relation), whose sculptures are well represented in Arts on the Point, the sculptor revealed to him four elegant, minimalist works from the 1970s, leading to a two-and-a-half-hour “invigorating, exciting, revealing, and fulfilling” discussion. It is moments like those, says Tucker, that make him feel part of a continuously evolving universe—with him as the astronomer, daily discovering new constellations.

Paul Tucker retired from UMass Boston in 2014. He is now a professor emeritus of art.

Giving to UMass Boston

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