Jennifer L. Roberts

Elizabeth Cary Agassiz Professor of the Humanities, Department of History of Art and Architecture; Harvard College Professor


Jennifer L. Roberts is Elizabeth Cary Agassiz Professor of the Humanities, Harvard College Professor, and Chair of the Program in American Studies at Harvard. She is an art historian focusing on American art from the colonial period onward, with particular interests in landscape, material culture, print culture, and the history of science. She received her A.B. from Stanford in English and Art History (1992) and her Ph.D. in History of Art from Yale (2000).

Within an art-historical discipline built on assumptions about the virtuality, ephemerality, and conceptual transcendence of images, Roberts’s work has consistently sought to return attention to the material eloquence of art. Her first book, Mirror-Travels: Robert Smithson and History (2004) explores Smithson’s attempt to redefine historical thinking so that it would no longer rely on optical metaphors (no more historical “backgrounds,” “horizons,” or “perspectives;” no more “looking back”). Instead, Smithson borrowed models from geology and physics, imagining history as a series of alluviations, depositions, and stratifications. Her forthcoming book Transporting Visions: The Movement of Images in Early America (January 2014), forges a material history of visual communication by tracing the literal transportation of pictures through the swamps, forests, oceans, and cities of the Anglo-American landscape between 1760 and 1860. “Visual communication” in early America was a fraught practice beset by intractable physical challenges – the long delays inherent in long-distance reception, concerns about the stability and mnemonic capacity of images, the uneasy mingling of artworks with everyday commodities in transit, and so forth. In confronting these challenges, early American art internalized the complications of its own transmission.

In 2012 Roberts curated the exhibition Jasper Johns/In Press: The Crosshatch Works and the Logic of Print for the Harvard Art Museums. The project sparked her interest in the broad cultural and philosophical implications of the physical operations of printing – reversal, layering, incision, contact, etc. – and led her to her current book project, tentatively titled The Printerly Intelligence of American Art.

Roberts has received numerous awards and fellowships for her teaching and research. At Harvard, she currently holds a Harvard College Professorship, awarded for distinguished undergraduate teaching. She also received the Roslyn Abramson Award for excellence in teaching undergraduates in 2005. She has been awarded research fellowships from the Stanford Humanities Center and the Clark Art Institute, and has accepted an invitation to occupy the Slade Professorship in Fine Arts at Cambridge University in 2018.

Dissertation Committees

“Race for the Pacific: Samoa in the Age of Empire” (Holger Droessler)

“Beyond Broken Glass: Looking at the South Bronx in Ruin” (Peter L’Official)

“American Whaling in Culture and Memory, 1820-1930″ (Jamie L. Jones)

“Object Lessons in American Culture” (Sarah Carter)

“‘The Remainder of our Effects We Must Leave Behind’: American Loyalists and the Meaning of Things, 1765-1800” (Katherine Rieder)

“Memory Work: Anne Truitt and Sculpture in the 1960s” (Miguel deBaca)

Selected Publications

  • RobertsTransportingVisions

    Transporting Visions: The Movement of Images in Early America (University of California Press, 2014), by Jennifer L. Roberts

  • RobertsAmericanEncounters

    American Encounters: Art, History, and Cultural Identity (Pearson, 2007), by Jennifer L. Roberts and others

  • RobertsJasperJohns

    Jasper Johns / In Press: The Crosshatch Works and the Logic of Print (Harvard Art Museums and Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2012), by Jennifer L. Roberts

  • robertsmirror

    Mirror-Travels: Robert Smithson and History (Yale University Press, 2004), by Jennifer L. Roberts