NEW YORK — Linda Nochlin, a celebrated art historian whose feminist approach permanently altered her field, died of cancer Oct. 29 at her home in New York City. She was 86.
Dr. Nochlin, who taught at the New York University Institute of Fine Arts, earned a place of honor in both art-historical and art-world circles in 1971 with a groundbreaking essay whose very title — “Why Are There So Few Great Women Artists?” — threw down a gauntlet.
Her answer was complex, as it examined assumptions behind the question, enumerated the centuries of institutional and social conventions that had militated against women succeeding in the arts, and it discredited what she called the myth of innate genius.
Her inquiry provided several generations of historians, critics, and artists with new tools to address issues of gender and identity in art. It also helped initiate a collective, and continuing, rewriting of art history.
In the process, not a few female artists have been recognized as great, as the very idea of greatness has been redefined and as the conception of art has expanded to include crafts.
As comfortable with 19th- as with 20th-century art, Dr. Nochlin was always alert to the overlooked and underrecognized. Her first important books were “Realism” (1971) and “Gustave Courbet: A Study of Style and Society” (1976), which grew out of her doctoral dissertation. They appeared at a time when 19th-century French painting usually meant impressionism and post-impressionism (although she wrote on those subjects, too).
Dr. Nochlin’s ability to toggle between the past and the present was aided by her clear, accessible writing, which was built on theory but never deadened by it. Her tone was brisk and irreverent, her ideas coming out in pithy, manageable chunks, making her work a perennial favorite with students.
Beyond her interest in art’s social and political contexts and meanings, Dr. Nochlin was keenly attentive to art objects, especially the surfaces of paintings. She once described herself as “an aesthetic creature to my fingertips.” In this vein, her Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard in 2004 were titled “Bathers, Bodies, Beauty: The Visceral Eye.”
A graduate of Vassar College, Dr. Nochlin earned a graduate degree in English literature at Columbia University and her doctorate at the Institute of Fine Arts. She taught at Vassar, Stanford University, Williams College, and Yale University before joining the faculty of the Institute of Fine Arts in 1980. She retired in 2013.