With the reopening of the Georgia Historical Society’s newly expanded and renovated Research Center, GHS is again getting visits from scholars, students, and researchers from all over the world researching and studying a wide variety of topics. Off the Deaton Path would like to introduce our readers to some of these visiting scholars and share with you what they’re working on and what they’re finding at GHS.
This week we’ll spotlight Dr. Alisa Luxenberg, Professor of 18th- and 19th-Century European Art at the University of Georgia’s Lamar Dodd School of Art. She is the author of two books: The Galerie Espagnole and the Museo Nacional, 1835-1853: Saving Spanish Art, or The Politics of Patrimony (Ashgate, 2008); and Secrets and Glory: baron Taylor and his ‘Voyage pittoresque en Espagne’ (Centro de Estudios Europea Hispánica, 2013). She is the co-editor, with Reva Wolf, of Freemasonry and the Visual Arts from the Eighteenth Century Forward (Bloomsbury, 2020).
Tell Us About Yourself: I was born and raised in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. My public high school was superb and allowed us to apply to an off-campus AP course in art history taught at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Each week for the entire year, we visited its world-class collections to examine works of art from the culture and period we were studying—I was captivated. When I matriculated at Duke University, I wrongly thought I wanted to be a veterinarian, and eventually gave in to my love of art history and double majored in French literature. I went on to do a Master’s in Art History at Boston University, took a year off to work for an art dealer in New York, and then continued in the PhD at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. The variety of voices in those art history departments, the superb museums in New England, and the real-world experiences with auction houses were essential to my formation as an object- and archive-based scholar open to the multiplicity of scholarly interpretation.
I have been teaching at the University of Georgia since 1999 and will be stepping down at the end of this academic year. I was fortunate to have taught elsewhere: Princeton, the American University in Paris, Washington University in St. Louis, Ohio State, Case Western Reserve, the University of Kentucky. I learned so much about teaching from having created so many different courses and interacting with diverse student bodies. A good thing, too, since I had no training in pedagogy! At UGA I mainly teach a rotation of eight courses in 18th- and 19th-century art, with some special topics sprinkled in. My research has focused on French and Spanish artistic interactions and early French and American photography.
Art history has always fascinated me for the rich fabric that one can weave around the work of art, which performs at the intersection of language, materiality, aesthetics, and often too, of politics, religion, gender, and class. I love the adventure of embarking on a research project, not knowing what I will find, forming questions no one has thought to ask, and the sheer thrill of opening manuscripts and books that no one has touched for generations or even centuries.
I’m convinced that I chose European art because of my own family history. Europe seemed very close to me; both of my grandfathers were immigrants who, along with one grandmother, spoke with strong foreign accents. The calamities that they and their families suffered during the Holocaust and behind the Iron Curtain weighed heavily on them and gave us sobering glimpses of their European past.
Tell Us About Your Current Project: This project represents a real break with the bulk of my career as it examines material culture in the U.S. However, it also enlarges upon my last major publication, a co-edited volume on the relationships between freemasonry and the visual arts (with Reva Wolf, Freemasonry and the Visual Arts from the Eighteenth Century Forward,Bloomsbury, 2020). I dove into freemasonry through the baron Taylor, a major figure in French 19th-century culture, high-ranking Mason, and the protagonist of my first two monographs.
After finding intriguing masonic objects in the Special Collections Libraries at UGA, I realized that I could parlay my knowledge in freemasonry into new research that fulfilled the land-grant mission of UGA and related more directly to Georgians. To that end, I am curating an exhibition of masonic materials (mostly) from Georgia that will open in January 2023 and writing a scholarly catalogue to accompany it.
Through these items we can perceive the pervasiveness and impact of freemasonry on life and culture in Georgia, from the State seal to the emblem of UGA, from college fraternities to other masonic and para-masonic groups like the Order of the Eastern Star, Knights of Pythias, and Gridiron Club. Although largely segregated, freemasonry provided Blacks in Georgia a safe place through which to help their fellow men and communities endure Jim Crow laws and advocate for their civil rights. Freemasonry left its traces everywhere in Georgia, once we are prepared to recognize the signs. Most of us have probably had a Mason or two in our families at some point. I know I was surprised to learn of some in my family! They were Jewish, Catholic, or immigrants, and serve as instances of the religious and class tolerance professed by masonic bodies. In these and other ways, freemasonry offers us an example of how, during quarrelsome times, people overcame their differences and met as equals, “on the level,” to try to improve themselves and reduce suffering in the world.
What Are you Finding at GHS? In general, it is difficult to do research into freemasonry for numerous reasons, but primarily because it is a secret society and, in the U.S., limited to men, and many lodges closed, or their records were lost over time. Some states have Grand Lodges that offer a masonic research collection; Georgia does not. At the beginning of my project, I thought the GHS would be my main research source, but it closed for renovation before I had my grant in hand, so I have been waiting more than three years to come! It forced me to find other resources, which allowed me to fine tune my research at the GHS.
The most significant collections for my project are those related to the eminent Savannah lodge, Solomon’s Lodge No. 1 (GHS 940), one of the first three recognized masonic lodges in the British North American colonies. These records have been microfilmed and contain 18th- and 19th-century minute books –a rarity, as so few have survived, due to fire, war, or neglect—that provide an idea of the membership, practices, and concerns of the lodge, as well as the masonic lives of specific members. For example, we hope to include a portrait painting of the Savannah Mason, John Habersham (Georgia Museum of Art), in the exhibition. Little research has been done on the painting or on Habersham’s masonic life. Now I will be able to provide documentary evidence of his freemasonry and possible readings of the portrait in relation to it.