Instructor brings Art History to life

Art History lecturer Emily Grey (middle) and two students, Stephanie Smith, left, and Catherine Gironda with the edible still life Grey created for her Northern Baroque art history class.
November 20, 2012

Chances are excellent that the students in Emily Grey’s Northern Baroque art history class will remember their study of 17th-century still-life painters long after their college days are over.

And it’s a good thing since they devoured all but a few crumbs of the lesson. 

For her lecture on the still-life paintings of Dutch and Flemish masters, Grey, an adjunct lecturer in Art History, set up an elaborate still life – red ripe raspberries, pomegranate and strawberries, deep purple grapes and burgundy olives, cheeses, crusty bread, shortbread topped with thick milk chocolate, all accented with a bouquet of flowers, lace and textile drapes, a candle, lamp and goblet.

An edible still life created by Art History lecturer Emily Grey, with “Still-Life with Herring” from 1636 by Pieter Claesz projected on the screen.
An edible still life created by Art History lecturer Emily Grey, with “Still-Life with Herring” from 1636 by Pieter Claesz projected on the screen.

“I’m always looking for ways to make art history engaging,” says Grey, who has been teaching at McDaniel for about five years. “Our classes on still-life painting come at a time in the semester when students are getting a little worn out and tired so I love to give them a treat and shake things up a little.”

Besides, she says, this class of about 11 students spanning first-years through seniors is an incredible group – more than deserving of the lavish spread. Still, Grey says she purposely left out of her edible still life some of the darker images that she will be discussing in the still-life paintings of Pieter Claesz, Clara Peeters, Willem Kalf and other Northern Baroque painters the course covers.

“Once you start to learn about still life, you see beyond the beautiful bowls and notice that some of the fruit has gone bad or perhaps there’s a mouse or a skull in the composition – all reminders of the ephemeral nature of life,” Grey says.

Her curiosity sparked by her instructor’s request that they show up for class with a small appetite, junior Catherine Gironda was more than a little surprised.

“It’s pretty cool – I was expecting pizza, not a still life,” says Gironda, an Art History major from Clarksburg, Md.

The class attracts students from other majors as well, including Stephanie Smith, a sophomore Environmental Biology major.

“I love art and manatees,” says the D.C.-area resident, who explained that since she is a visual learner whose hometown offered endless opportunities to view art, taking a course in Northern Baroque art was a natural choice for her.

The edible part, of course, was a bonus.