Professor Herbert’s History

Many current art history majors cite taking a class with him as a primary reason behind their decision to declare the major, and as current sophomores, juniors and seniors who enrolled in Humanities Core their freshmen years know, Professor James D. Herbert is unforgettable in every capacity.

Courtesy of Jim Herbert

Courtesy of Jim Herbert

With his lectures more like performances and his complex lecture slides much like the artwork he discusses with his students, Dr. Herbert is one of the most brilliant and entertaining professors in the School of Humanities.

Herbert, the son of an architect and an art teacher, grew up in Eugene, Oregon, a small town in the center of the state, home to the University of Oregon and very little else.

“If it weren’t for the university there, it would be a boring lumber town,”  Herbert said. “The university really saved me, not just in terms of resources; a real library, but also because there was a peer group of the professors’ kids to hang out with.”

In high school, Herbert was also active in speech and debate and played the bassoon. Herbert did not realize his passion for art history until college.

While pursuing a major in mathematics at Stanford University, he chose to study abroad for a semester in Berlin, Germany.

“I had never travelled east of the Mississippi. I had never really been to an art museum; really didn’t know what art history was,” Herbert said.

In Berlin, Herbert visited his first museums, attended his first symphony orchestra concerts and became inspired by an art history professor who presented the idea of art as a means by which artists engage with the social and political developments of their own age.

Upon his return to Stanford, Herbert switched his major to humanities, planned his own program of study, which allowed him to take mostly art history and philosophy classes and has been studying the history of western art and culture ever since.

Since earning his Ph.D. in art history from Yale University, Herbert, a faculty member at UCI since 1993, has taught himself musicology, written four books and created UC Irvine’s Ph.D. program in visual studies, an interdisciplinary approach to the advanced study of visual culture that combines courses taught by faculty from  both the art history and film and media studies departments.

His expertise lies in 19th and 20th century European art, particularly the work of the French impressionists, such as Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edouard Degas and Berthe Morisot, and post-impressionists such as Gaugin and Cezanne.

Yet in recent years, he has also  published articles on paintings dating from the Italian Renaissance on specific works such as Raphael’s “Transfiguration.”

“I’m a one painting kind of guy,” he explained.

Herbert was in New York during the destruction of the World Trade Center in September 2001.His original plans — to deliver a guest lecture at a nearby institution — had obviously fallen through, and he soon found himself standing in front of Picasso’s “Ma Jolie,” a famous example of cubism at the Museum of Modern Art in midtown Manhattan.

“I spent three hours in front of that painting, looking at it,”  Herbert said.

In that time, he realized every argument he had read previously about the work was horribly incorrect, and wrote a new article, refuting previous claims.

“I had to correct it,” he said.

His fourth book, “Brushstroke and Emergence: Courbet, Impressionism, Picasso,” which will be released later this year, explores the concept of a painter’s individual brushstrokes as a form of identity and deconstructs the myth that the brushstrokes in a particular work are a sign of the artist.

Overall, Herbert sees lecturing not as a spewing of information, but rather, as a form of storytelling.

“That’s how I write, that’s how I lecture, that’s how I think. I never give a part of information that isn’t part of a story. An argument only works if it has a beginning, middle and end,” he said.

As for the importance of studying the history of art in the 21st century, Herbert explained, “We can live our lives in an interesting way or an uninteresting way.

“Studying art history opens up a lifestyle of pleasure and intrigue in the complexities of our visual environment.”