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John Harvard's Journal | Harvard Portrait

Ethan Lasser

May-June 2016

Portrait of Ethan Lasser

Ethan Lasser
Photograph by Jim Harrison


Ethan Lasser
Photograph by Jim Harrison

When he put the two paintings together, on facing walls of a Harvard Art Museums gallery—Winslow Homer’s Pitching Quoits, showing Zouave-inspired Civil War infantrymen in their red seroual trousers, and Théodore Chassériau’s 1850 depiction of actual Arab horsemen carrying their dead from the battlefield—“It was a revelation,” says curator Ethan Lasser. Homer hadn’t yet been to France, but he admired French painters, who themselves were enamored of the Middle East and North Africa. “The vibrant conversation between these two paintings—you really need to see it in the flesh,” Lasser adds. As Stebbins curator of American art and head of the museums’ European and American art division, he tries to make such conversations visible, grouping artworks by theme and period, not country and medium: “a more contextual story.” Lasser’s parents owned a Boston art gallery, and he spent many boyhood hours roaming the city’s museums. Williams College led to a job at a New York auction house, where he was told, “You ask too many questions—go to grad school.” After a Yale Ph.D. and five years at Milwaukee’s Chipstone Foundation, specializing in furniture and decorative arts, he arrived in 2012 at Harvard, where he also teaches, co-leading classes that offer art historians hands-on experience with art-making. “You hear about ideas like ‘flow,’ or that materials always resist you,” he explains, “and here you can get a sense of what those mean in ways that are hard to express.” The museums’ artworks can be similarly elusive. “I’ll never know them fully,” he says. “I’ll be walking up the stairs one day and see something in a work that I’ve never seen before, just because it’s five o’clock in the evening in the summer.” A revelation.

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Nell Painter, a professor emerita of American history at Princeton, now works as an artist in Newark, New Jersey.

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Photograph by Jim Harrison

Photographs of Arnold Arboretum trees and shrubs through four seasons

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