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Esther Bell adds to her national renown as a museum curator

Esther Bell
Courtesy Esther Bell

Esther Bell (Col ’01) loves a surprise. She’s the chief curator at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and—asked to show off a favorite painting in this world-class museum—she stops not at a vast landscape or dynamic nude, but at a tiny Renoir still life, The Onions, which depicts six of the humble vegetables nestled together.

Renoir’s The Onions, c. 1881 Courtesy the Clark Art Institute

“It’s all about the fiery strokes of the brush and the variety of the color palette,” says Bell, her words pouring out in rapid-fire enthusiasm. “It’s a virtuoso piece, and he painted it on the fly. It’s not an immediately recognizable heroic subject, but when you spend more time with it, you see it’s an extremely complicated work. I like to spend as much time with it as I can.”

During a whirlwind, coast-to-coast career that has taken her from The Met and the Morgan Library & Museum to the Cincinnati Art Museum and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Bell has orchestrated 20 exhibitions, mostly of 17th- through 19th-century art. She earned her Ph.D. in 17th- and 18th-century European art history at New York University after studying art history at UVA. The international art magazine Apollo honored her in 2019 as one of the 40 “most inspirational” young art people to watch, calling her “the type of curator that so many historical collections yearn for today: knowledgeable and scholarly, but with the savviness and connections to make things happen.”

“She’s a dynamo,” says George Shackelford, deputy director of the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. He has collaborated with Bell on six exhibitions, including the Clark’s recent Renoir: The Body, The Senses, a show focused on the French impressionist’s nudes that earned rave reviews and sparked a bit of controversy in the national media. “She’s unwilling to settle for what’s easy, and dedicated to getting exactly the right thing done, negotiated, printed or presented.”

Renoir’s Sunset, c. 1879 or 1881. About Sunset, Bell says, “I imagine he fussed over this quite a bit, because you see layers upon layers of paint, and it’s all about gesture and color, and it’s spectacular.” Courtesy the Clark Art Institute

Bell does it all. She courts donations and buys new art for the Clark, a role in which her fluency in French and proficiency in German and Italian serve her well. An art archaeologist of sorts, she wins invitations to collectors’ mansions, including Buckingham Palace, in hopes of unearthing works they might lend. In a bedroom tucked in the uppermost floor of one San Francisco hideaway, she and Shackelford, though there to see a Renoir, stumbled upon two Degas pastels, both perfect for another of Bell’s upcoming shows.

“The idea that you can bring long-unseen works to the public, that’s what’s exciting,” Bell says. “People don’t know about the trials and tribulations you went through searching for things shrouded in privacy.” 

Just as being surprised delights her, she likes to surprise museumgoers. “I like to tell stories that haven’t been told before, to reveal a part of the artistic tradition that we haven’t yet focused properly on,” she says. 

Her planned 2024 show celebrating the unheralded Guillaume Lethière, the first major French artist of African descent, will do just that. The exhibition will investigate issues of race, and she hopes it will “take on the canon” and rocket Lethière into the rarefied heights of art history. A featured work will be her 2018 acquisition of his 1788 neoclassical masterpiece Brutus Condemning His Sons to Death. It became a widely circulated engraving during the French Revolution and, according to Bell, a “poignant and disturbing emblem” of the times.

Guillaume Lethière’s Brutus Condemning His Sons to Death, 1788 Courtesy the Clark Art Institute

Planning an exhibition requires a complex “incubation” of two to five years, she says. “It can be stressful. You’re negotiating loans and arranging for objects to travel the world to be in your space. A very important part of my job is writing the catalog, the lasting record. I worked so hard to make the Renoir exhibition happen. Now it’s gone, an ephemeral experience.”

What about the acid-dipped Renoir review by The New Yorker’s critic, who decried the painter’s “carnal tapioca, the vacant gazes, the fatuous frolic”? Again, Bell surprises. She says the review actually made a beautiful and complex argument, which contended that “there are parts of Renoir that challenge some of us in 2019. That, to me, means the paintings are doing something right. They make us think and react. That’s great art.”

At UVA, Bell says, her passion for art was inspired by Professor Matthew Affron, now the curator of modern art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, who taught one of her first art survey classes. She recalls thinking at the time, “Wow, I want to do what that professor is doing.”

And thanks to what she calls a “miraculous” event in Fayerweather Hall when she was 20, her career caught fire. Scanning the art department bulletin board for internships, she spied a notice from an Old Master gallery in Manhattan. “It was very random that I came across it,” she says. “I took the train from Charlottesville to Penn Station and arrived overwhelmed and terrified, but the job changed everything in my life.” 

Her second-year roommate and friend since fifth grade, Jodie Slater Hastings (Col ’01), calls Bell “one of those rare people who sets out to do something and thrives in it.” Though she says Bell was a very serious student, she had “such a light side.” 

As fourth-years, Slater and Bell were University Guides. “One night on Parents Weekend, we wore full-blown 18th-century clothing and gave a tour by candlelight,” Hastings says. “We took it to a theatrical next level. We even had historical nicknames for each other.” 

Esther Bell on Grounds in 1998, during her undergraduate days  Courtesy Esther Bell

Bell was no stranger to costumes at UVA, having trick-or-treated on the Lawn at age 6. Her family lived in married student housing in Copeley Hill while her father, Barry Bell (Law ’68, Grad ’77), earned a law degree. Her mother, Harriet Bell (Educ ’74), earned a master’s in education here. “I grew up having picnics on the Lawn, spending my days in the kernel of the University,” recalls Bell, who herself lived on the Lawn during her fourth year.

Nowadays the Plano, Texas, native loves “the serious winters” of New England. Bell says she is “very happy” at the Clark and that her days of transcontinental museum hopping are over. 

“I’m fascinated by the idea of using art as a portal into the past to understand human history,” she says. “That’s the power of art. It’s absolutely amazing.”