25 Oct 2018

Bringing the Background into Focus

Denise Murrell’s new exhibit sheds light on overlooked characters


Édouard Manet, “La négresse (Portrait of Laure),” 1863.
Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli, Turino

Denise Murrell (MBA 1980) spent the majority of her career on Wall Street, but pursued her passion for art in night classes, working her ways towards a master’s in art history. After traveling during a paid non-compete period, Murrell made a change. “With some time and reflection, I realized I wanted to place my art endeavors at the center of my life and work,” she wrote in a profile celebrating 50 years of women in the MBA program. “By the end of that hiatus, I was enrolled in a full time PhD program at Columbia.”

A recent article in the New York Times highlights Murrell’s new exhibition at Columbia’s Wallach Art Gallery, Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today. The exhibition includes the Manet piece “Olympia”—the subject of Murrell’s 2014 dissertation—which shows a white prostitute with a black maid at her bedside, the latter character often overlooked in academic discussions. “This woman is in full view, but she’s invisible, ignored in the narrative,” Murrell told the Times. “Would Manet really give all this pictorial space to someone he didn’t want us to pay attention to?”

In a press release from Columbia announcing the exhibit, Murrell recalls her first time she viewed the painting as a graduate student. “My heart was pounding and I wondered what would be said about the black servant ... and was really concerned that nothing at all was mentioned. …As I did that, I understood that she was not just the subject of Manet’s work, but of works by many successive generations of artists. As I looked more deeply into the archival and anecdotal material about her, I became aware of how extensive her legacy was with a pattern of images that exist across the last 160 or so years.”

 The Times article also notes the challenges that Murrell has faced in her quest to secure support for her research.

After getting her doctorate at Columbia, she was unable to find a museum job and was turned down for multiple postdoctoral fellowships. Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, was sent a copy of her dissertation and described being “flabbergasted” that she had not found work. He immediately committed $100,000 to Ms. Murrell to continue her research in 2014 and has given $500,000 in total to support the exhibition at the Wallach.

“This is the way narratives get changed,” Mr. Walker said. “I’m not surprised that the large institutions weren’t interested in this show because often the smaller institutions are more willing to take the risk on an unknown curator or on a disruptive idea.”


Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1980, Section G

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