Nell Irvin Painter, a leading historian of the United States, is the Edwards Professor of American History, Emerita, Princeton University. In addition to her earned doctorate in history from Harvard University, she has received honorary doctorates from Wesleyan, Dartmouth, SUNY-New Paltz, and Yale.
A Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Nell Painter has also held fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the American Antiquarian Society. She has served as president of the Organization of American Historians and the Southern Historical Association. Those presidential addresses have been published in the Journal of American History (“Ralph Waldo Emerson's Saxons” in March 2009) and the Journal of Southern History (“Was Marie White?” February 2008). The City of Boston declared Thursday, 4 October 2007Nell Irvin Painter Day in honor of her Outstanding Book Award from the Gustavus Myers Center in 2006.
A prolific and award-winning scholar, her most recent books are The History of White People (W. W. Norton, 2010, paperback, March 2011),Creating Black Americans (Oxford University Press, 2006), and Southern History Across the Color Line (University of North Carolina Press, 2002). A second edition of Standing at Armageddon: The United States, 1877-1919 and a Korean translation of Sojourner Truth, A Life, A Symbolappeared in 2008. Her other books are also still in print. For a complete list of her book and article publications and other honors and activities, please consult the CV on this website.
As a public intellectual, Professor Painter is frequently called upon for lectures and interviews on television and film. In January 2008 she appeared live for a three-hour “In Depth” program on C-SPAN Book TV. To see the program on the internet, go to the web page for “In Depth.”She has also appeared on Bill Moyers’s “Progressive America.” New Jersey Network’s “State of the Arts” documented her work as both a scholar and an art student.
Question: Why did you transition from emeritus history professor to graduate art student?
Nell Irvin Painter: At first it wasn’t hard. It’s gotten harder and harder. Being a graduate student is no fun and is hard, but I’m sticking with it. I love making art. Making art for me is not fun in the sense of la, la, la, la, but it’s something that I find very absorbing and very satisfying and I have a hard time stopping, so it’s 11:00 and I need to go to bed and if I just do this one little bit of yellow. You know, it just goes on and on and on. Many, many years ago when I was an undergraduate I kind of came to a fork in the road. My father had taught me how to draw. My mother had taught me how to write. I come from an academic family in Oakland, California and I was majoring in art at the University of California Berkley and I took sculpture and sculpture was hard and I thought this proves I haven’t got the talent. Well this of course was nonsense. This was silly young person thinking. You need to do some work even if you have the talent. So I just went the way that was easier, the way I knew what to do, but I have always had the pleasure of the eye. I’ve always enjoyed color. I’m a knitter. Actually I knitted this sweater I’m wearing, so the visual sense has always been with me. In the 1990’s I wrote a biography of Sojourner Truth and Sojourner Truth did not read and write. She had her photographs taken, so I needed to learn the meaning of photographs, the history of photographs and I wrote a chapter on Sojourner Truth in photography. That took me over to the art history library at Princeton, which is a magnificent library and I really enjoyed that, so that was kind of the first nudge. Also my mother who died a little over a year ago changed her career at 65. She started writing books. It took her 10 years to write and publish her first book, 10 years to write and publish her second book and she was working on a website when she died at 91, so I thought well I can do that and if I’m going to live to be 91, I will have an art career too, as long as many successful artists who are with us today. So it was that kind of sense of possibility. They’re called encore careers.