Art and science have always come together for Eleanor Jones Harvey '78. Her mother used to take her sister, Margaret Jones Helber ’80, and her through the Smithsonian museums and the National Gallery of Art when they were children. At Guilford College, Eleanor initially majored in geology, but it was her experience as an intern at the National Museum of Natural History that shifted her career path toward art. She eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in art history at the University of Virginia and a master’s and doctorate in art history from Yale University.
Today, Eleanor is the senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C, where she has worked for the past ten years. Previously, she worked at the Dallas Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Her area of specialization is American landscape painting, which allows her to combine both passions for art and science.
She has received a number of fellowships, grants, and other recognition for her work, including The Henry Luce Foundation Grant for exhibition and publication support of her current exhibition, a fellowship from the Center for Curatorial Leadership, the Henry Russell Hitchcock Book Award from the Victorian Society of America for “The Painted Sketch: American Impressions from Nature, 1830-1880,” and the Smithsonian Predoctoral Fellowship from the National Museum of American Art.
Eleanor lives in Arlington, Virginia with her husband, Stephen, and two children, Caroline and Duncan.
Q: What are some of your major responsibilities as senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum?
A: In my current role, I focus on developing exhibitions; major, multi-year research projects involving writing books that contribute to the scholarship on American art and developing and presenting exhibitions of works of art from the Smithsonian’s collection and borrowed from other museums and private collectors. This is the most fun you can have as a curator–coming up with ideas that form the framework of groundbreaking research, finding the works of art that support the thesis, convincing my colleagues to lend me their artworks for the exhibition, and developing the full slate of programs while the show is on view.
Q: Your research interests include 19th and 20th century American art, landscape painting, southwestern abstraction, and Texas art. Why do these topics interest you?
A: These topics are all connected to my sustained interest in landscape and geography as part of our cultural identity as Americans. Nineteenth-century landscape painting was the defining genre in art for visualizing an American identity; gradually that idiom moved west to Taos and Santa Fe in the early 20th century. I spent the better part of ten years living in Texas, which reinforced my understanding of the role geography plays in how each of us perceives who we are and how we tie that to where we call home.
Q: Did any faculty members at St. Agnes impact your career?
There are really four people from St. Agnes who shaped the way I think about art and culture, and who instilled in me a lifelong love of learning. There is no question that Francesca Morse, who taught the art history component of the Ages of Man (Ages of Humanity) program, played a seminal role in awakening my interest in art history. Priscilla Rooth coaxed out of me better thinking and writing than I thought I wanted to accomplish. Lillian Toler was my earth science teacher and fueled my interest in geology. Sherley Keith made senior English a real treat–she allowed me to mine unabridged dictionaries for my weekly vocabulary words, encouraging my quests for archaic and often bizarre definitions. I still do this, just for fun.