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Svetlana Leontief Alpers (born February 10, 1936) is an American art historian, also a professor, writer and critic. Her specialty is Dutch Golden Age painting, although she has also written on Tiepolo, Rubens, Breugel, and Velázquez, among others and is one of the most influential American art historians of her generation. She is a consultant to both National Public Radio and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and has held many visiting academic appointments around the world.
Svetlana Leontief was born at Cambridge, Massachusetts the only child of Wassily Leontief political refugee from the Soviet Union, a Nobel laureate Economist who pioneered computer modelling, and poet Estelle Marks. She received her B.A. from Radcliffe College in 1957 and a Ph.D.from Harvard in 1965. In 1958 she married and changed her last name to Alpers. She has 2 children, Benjamin Alpers (born in 1965) and Nicholas Alpers (born in 1968) and 4 grandchildren.
In 2007 she collaborated with artists James Hyde and Barney Kulok on a project entitled Painting Then for Now. The project consists of 19 photographic prints based on the suite of three paintings by Giambattista Tiepolo that hang at the top of the main staircase in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The project was exhibited at David Krut Gallery, NY. Six of the prints were later acquired for the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. On May 28, 2015, she was awarded an honorary doctorate by Harvard University.
In a critical review of Rembrandt's Enterprise: The Studio and the Market, for conservative magazine The New Criterion, Hilton Kramer described it as an emblematic event "As far as the study of art history is concerned” and more particularly, what has gone wrong with it”. He argues that it attacks Rembrandt for "having commodified himself by virtue of having painted and marketed his own self-portraits". He describes a debt to Fredric Jameson's “Postmodernism and Consumer Society", with "Professor Alpers’s “Rembrandt” coming to resemble an artist like Andy Warhol, the most successful "entrepreneur of the self". He accuses Alpers of removing the greatest art categorically from the realm of aesthetics, using it as "just another counter in the dialectic of material culture. Such, too, is the dismal fate of art history when the study of art is no longer its primary concern."
- The Decoration of the Torre de la Parada, Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard, Brussels/London, 1971.
- The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983
- Rembrandt's Enterprise: The Studio and the Market, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988
- Tiepolo and the Pictorial Intelligence, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994 (with Michael Baxandall)
- The Making of Rubens, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995.
- The Vexations of Art: Velázquez and Others, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005.
- Roof Life, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013.
Memberships and distinctons
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- Phi Beta Kappa
- Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, 1957-8
- Kathryn-McHale Fellowship, AAUW, 1961-2
- Guggenheim Fellowship, 1972-3
- Fellow, Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University, 1975-6
- ACLS Fellowship, 1978–79
- Visiting Fellow, Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study (NIAS), Wassenaar, 1979
- Member, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey, 1979–80
- Eugene-M.-Kayen-Prize 1983 for "The Art of Describing"
- Distinguished Teaching Award, Berkeley, 1986
- Visiting Scholar, Getty Research Institute, California, 1987–88
- Director of Studies, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris, 1991
- Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1991
- Fellow, Institute for Advanced Study, Berlin, 1992–93
- Honorary Doctor, Courtauld Institute of Art, London, 2009
- Visiting critic at the NYU Institute of Fine Arts.
- Elected a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy (2014).
- "Alpers, Svetlana [née Leontief]". Dictionary of Art Historians. Retrieved January 6, 2015.
- Ross, Alex (1999). "Stanford Presidential Lectures in the Humanities and the Arts, Svetlana Alpers". Stanford University. Retrieved January 6, 2015.
- "Book of Members, 1780-2010: Chapter A" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 15 April 2011.
- "British Academy announces 42 new fellows". Times Higher Education. 18 July 2014. Retrieved 18 July 2014.
- Bowman, John S. Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) p. 14.