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Remembering Art Historian Dr. Jessie J. Poesch, 1923-2011

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Dr. Jessie J. Poesch


Dr. Jessie J. Poesch, the foremost scholar of the arts of the South, died on April 23, 2011 in New Orleans. She was 88 years old. The cause was complication following surgery.

Dr. Poesch was a pioneering historian of American art and architecture. Her scholarship was as broad in its time range, covering the pre-colonial period through the twentieth century, as it was in subject matter.

Dr. Poesch was born in Postville, Iowa on May 19, 1922. After earning a B.A. from Antioch College in Ohio, she served as a relief worker for the American Friends Service Committee in post-World War II France and Germany. Upon her return, she earned her M.A. from the University of Delaware, and her Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. In 1963, Dr. Poesch came to New Orleans to teach the History of Art at the Newcomb College Art Department of Tulane University, where she inspired and trained hundreds of students until her retirement in 1992. She chaired the department in 1972-77 and 1986-87, and was named to the Maxine and Ford Graham Chair in Fine Art in 1986.

Among the numerous books and articles she published are The Art of the Old South: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture and the Products of Craftsmen, 1560-1860, issued in 1983 and reprinted in 1989. It remains the definitive survey of the work of early Southern artists, designers, and architects. Her interest in the art pottery of Newcomb College in New Orleans culminated in an exhibition and catalogue, Newcomb Pottery: An Enterprise for Southern Women, 1895-1940, in 1984. The book stands as a classic in decorative-arts monographs. It additionally sparked renewed appreciation for the now-famous Newcomb Pottery. A second, expanded edition was developed with Sally Main, Newcomb Pottery and Crafts, An Educational Enterprise for Women, 1895-1940 (2003).

Other significant books include Titus Ramsay Peale, 1799-1885, and His Journals of the Wilkes Expedition (1961 reprinted 1979), considered a valuable contribution to the history of nineteenth-century science and thought.

Dr. Poesch was a guest curator for several major exhibitions of Southern art and wrote or co-authored their catalogues, including Early Furniture of Louisiana (1972), David Hunter Strother: "one of the best draughtsmen the country possesses" (1997), and Arthur Wesley Dow and American Arts and Crafts (1999). Most recently she was a curator for Jefferson's America, Napoleon's France (2003). Dr. Poesch continued as a productive scholar in her retirement, publishing an article on Will Henry Stevens in American Art Review and a catalogue for an exhibition on Stevens for the Spartanburg Art Museum, both in April 2011.

Dr. Poesch served on the boards of directors for the Society for Architectural Historians and the Victorian Society of America. In New Orleans, she served on the boards of directors of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, the Newcomb Art Gallery, the Louisiana Landmarks Society, the Beauregard-Keyes House, Longue Vue House and Gardens, and the Gallier House Museum Foundation. She received numerous awards and honors for her work. She was a Fulbright scholar in London (1961-1962). In 1992 the Jessie J. Poesch Professorship in Art was established in her honor in the Newcomb Art Department, Tulane University. That year Dr. Poesch was named Humanist of the Year by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. In 2011 she was named a Fellow of the Society of Architectural Historians for her significant contributions to the field.

Dr. Jessie Poesch was preceded in death by her parents, Edward and Melvina Poesch, brothers Lyle Poesch and Leslie Poesch, sister-in-law Darlene Johnson, and great-nephew Casey Walker. She is survived by sister-in-law Bernice Poesch, and nieces and nephews Carol (Garland) Barron, Donna Poesch, Elaine (Miron) Walker, Lowell (Sally) Poesch, Charles (Karma) Poesch. Dr. Poesch is also survived by great-nieces and nephews Christopher Barron, Jennifer Covinsky, Steven Jerome, Carrie and Greg Walker, Dylan and Erika Poesch, and Carly, Christopher, Collin, and Chelsea Poesch.

A memorial celebration of Dr. Jessie Poesch’s life will be held on May 9, 2011 at 2:30 p.m. in the Rogers Memorial Chapel, Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana. Inurnment will take place in Postville, Iowa at a later date. The Jessie J. Poesch Memorial Fund is being established to support the work of the Newcomb Art Department and Newcomb Art Gallery.

Tulane University, School of Liberal Arts, 102 Newcomb Hall, New Orleans, LA  70118, (504) 865-5225, liberalarts@tulane.edu