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Harris, Neil

    Image Credit: University of Chicago

    Full Name: Harris, Neil

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1938

    Place Born: Brooklyn, Cattaraugus, NY, USA

    Home Country/ies: United States

    Subject Area(s): American (North American), art theory, and social history

    Career(s): art historians and educators


    University of Chicago social historian whose primary publications are on American art. Harris was raised in Brooklyn, NY, the son of Harold Harris and Irene Harris. After receiving an A. B. from Columbia University in 1958 he continued to Cambridge University, Cambridge, England, receiving a second B.A. in 1960. He returned to the U.S., completing a doctorate from Harvard University in 1965. He taught at Harvard first as an instructor and then assistant professor of history in 1965. His dissertation, written under Oscar Handlin (b.1915) was published the following year as the groundbreaking book, The Artist in American Society: the Formative Years, 1790-1860. A sociological examination of the view of art in American society, Harris’ research was drawn from written accounts of the time and not an art history. After his appointment to assistant professor at Harvard, Harris moved to the University of Chicago in 1969 as associate professor. He was the Boucher lecturer at Johns Hopkins University in 1971. He rose to (full) professor of history at Chicago in 1972. Harris moved on to other forms of American Kultur, most notably Humbug: The Art of P. T. Barnum, which appeared in 1973. Harris treated Barnum as a cultural force, much as emerging American artists, feeding the public’s sense of wonder and their appreciation of Barnum’s artistry. Harris lectured as a visiting professor at Yale University, Cardozo lecturer, in 1974. He was director of the National Humanities Institute, 1975-1977. Harris received a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship for the 1980-1981 year. He sat on the architecture advisory committee of the Art Institute of Chicago from 1982. In 1982, too, he was the Whitney Museum of American Art, Tandy lecturer. He chaired the department of history at the University of Chicago between 1985 and 1988. Though a social historian, Harris’s interest in the art object manifested itself with his participation in the 1989 exhibition at the Renwick Gallery, Washgington, D. C., “Masterworks of Louis Comfort Tiffany.” Harris’ 1990 book focused on the marketing of popular culture, Cultural Excursions: Marketing Appetites and Cultural Tastes in Modern America, including shopping centers and parking garages. He became Preston and Sterling Morton Professor of History at Chicago in 1990. In 1991 he was appointed a Getty scholar. He mounted an exhibition for the Art Institute of Chicago in 1993 on the centennial of the Museum’s founding. Harris was an anomaly, a historian with academic appointments in history departments, writing principally on art and art’s role as a social force in history. His primary research interest was the role of the artist in American culture and society. In The Artist in American Society: The Formative Years, 1790-1860, Harris examined letters, memoirs, diaries, and European travel guides determining that American artists reformed the notion of art along moral terms to contrast it from foreign perceptions.

    Selected Bibliography

    [dissertation:] The Artistic Enterprise in America, 1790-1860. Harvard, 1965, revised and published as, The Artist in American Society: the Formative Years, 1790-1860. New York: G. Braziller, 1966; “The Gilded Age Revisited: Boston and the Museum Movement,” American Quarterly 14, no. 4 (1962): 545-64; Humbug; the Art of P. T. Barnum. Boston: Little, Brown, 1973; and Duncan, Alastair , and Eidelberg, Martin. Masterworks of Louis Comfort Tiffany. New York: Abrams, 1989; Cultural Excursions: Marketing Appetites and Cultural Tastes in Modern America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990; Chicago’s Dream, a World’s Treasure: the Art Institute of Chicago, 1893-1993. Chicago: Art Institute, 1993; and Hebert, Robert and Druick, Douglas W. Seurat and the Making of La Grande Jatte. Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago/University of California Press, 2004.


    "Harris, Neil." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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