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Miller, Lillian B.

    Full Name: Miller, Lillian B.

    Other Names:

    • Lillian B. Miller

    Gender: female

    Date Born: 1923

    Date Died: 1997

    Place Born: Boston, Suffolk, MA, USA

    Place Died: Washington, DC, USA

    Home Country/ies: United States

    Subject Area(s): American (North American)


    Peale family scholar and early researcher in American arts funding. Born to a Lithuanian immigrant family–her father worked as a butcher in Boston–Lillian Beresnack, graduated magna cum laude from Radcliffe College–the first of her family to attend college–in 1943. She continued on to Columbia University as a graduate student. Having worked her way through college as a secretary, she spent her graduate years as one to Columbia’s historian Jacques Barzun (b. 1907) and the literature professor Lionel Trilling (1905-1975). When the temperamental writer Mary McCarthy (1912-1989) abruptly resigned from teaching at Bard College in 1946, they recommended Beresnack, still only 23, to replace McCarthy. Her master’s degree, granted in 1948, was on the Socialist labor leader Eugene V. Debs (1855-1926). She married Nathan Miller (1917-), a fellow Columbia graduate student in economic history the same year. Beresnack, now Miller, continued working on her Ph.D., while having children (an AAUW grant was once denied because she was pregnant). The couple secured an appointment at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1961, forcing the University to rescind its nepotism rule. Her dissertation was accepted for her Ph.D. in 1962 on the topic of arts sponsorship in the early U.S. The published version of her dissertation, appearing in 1966 as Patrons and Patriotism: The Encouragement of the Fine Arts in the United States, became a seminal text for those in government looking for precedents to government funding for the arts and attracted the attention of the Smithsonian hierarchy. In 1971 she moved to the National Portrait Gallery in Washgington, D. C., an institution only nine years old then, to be its first historian. She began research on Charles Wilson Peale in 1973, one of the country’s early portraitists but relatively unstudied. The approaching bi-centennial of the U.S. focused her research on two exhibitions of visual nationhood. “In the Minds and Hearts of the People,” 1974, and “The Dye is now Cast,” 1975, both examining American portraiture as an historical phenomenon through individual personalities of the artists. In 1980, the microfilm version of the complete Peale papers was published. Together with curators Ted Richardson and the historian Brooke Hindle (1918-2001), Miller helped curate the major Peale exhibition held at the National Gallery and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Yale University Press’ edition of the selected papers began appearing in 1983. Her office at the Gallery became the center of Peale studies. An exhibition devoted to Rembrandt Peale, “In Pursuit of Fame,” was mounted at the Gallery in 1992. A final Peale exhibition toured Philadelphia and San Francisco between 1995 and 1996. She also lectured at George Washington University and the University of Maryland. Miller announced her intention for two retirement projects for which she had gathered material: a study of art patronage in the United States between 1800 and 1914, and a biography on Charles Eliot Norton. However, she died of a a cerebral hemorrhage at Georgetown hospital, age 74, the year before her projected retirement at 75.

    Selected Bibliography

    [dissertation:] Art and Nationality: The Encouragement of the Fine Arts in the United States, 1790-1860. Columbia University, 1962; Patrons and Patriotism: The Encouragement of the Fine Arts in the United States, 1790-1860. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966; In the Minds and Hearts of the People; Prologue to the American Revolution: 1760-1774. Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society, 1974; edited, with Hart, Sidney, and Appel, Toby A. The Selected Papers of Charles Willson Peale and his Family. 5 vols. New Haven, CT: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution/ Yale University Press, 1983-1997; In Pursuit of Fame: Rembrandt Peale, 1778-1860. Washington, DC: National Portrait Gallery, 1992.


    Kleinbauer, W. Eugene. Research Guide to the History of Western Art. Sources of Information in the Humanities, no. 2. Chicago: American Library Association, 1982, p. 120 mentioned; Kleinbauer, W. Eugene. Modern Perspectives in Western Art History: An Anthology of 20th-Century Writings on the Visual Arts. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971, p. 84; [obituaries:] Fern, Alan. “Lillian B. Miller (1923-1997).” American Art 12, no. 1 (Spring 1998): 92-95; Thomas, Robert M, Jr. “Lillian B. Miller, Historian, 74; Studied Art by the Peale Family.” New York Times December 1, 1997, p. B7.


    "Miller, Lillian B.." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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