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Art History Speaker Series

2023-2024 Series: "Extinction"

The “Extinction” speaker series delves into the visual and material representations of Earth’s dwindling biodiversity, examining the historical contexts behind the treatment of living organisms as natural resources, commodities, and objects of aesthetic or scientific inquiry.

When did efforts for preservation and extinction management begin? How have visual and material culture mediated, naturalized, challenged, and responded to human-induced species extinction?

Internationally renowned practitioners of ecocriticism from fields such as art history, history, and media studies will engage with these questions, probing the interdisciplinary intersections of art, ecology, and the politics of representation.

person riding an elephant, the elephant is loaded with several canisters tied with ropesJonathan Saha

Professor of History at Durham University


Friday, March 29, 2024 at 12:00-1:15 p.m. MT

Zoom: Decolonising Animals: Burmese Elephants and the End of Empire

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Decolonising Animals: Burmese Elephants and the End of Empire

The growing call to decolonise Animal Studies, and Environmental Humanities more broadly, is overdue and welcome. The imperative to decolonise enables scholars in the field to better recognise the underlying hierarchies, biases, and occlusions in our research, encouraging us to find creative ways of reconceptualising our work anew. Nevertheless, there is something of a tendency in the literature towards considering decolonisation as an abstract process and a predominantly epistemological problem. This divorces decolonisation in the academy from social and political histories of decolonisation. By looking at what happened to Burmese elephants during the collapse of British imperialism in Myanmar, in my talk I argue that historical struggles for decolonisation can help to ground and hone what it means to decolonise our studies.

painting depicting a huntFaisal Husain

Assistant Professor of History at Penn State


Wednesday, March 13, 2024 at 12:00-1:15 p.m. MT

Zoom: “Hunting Too Much: Case Studies of Joy and Remorse from Early Modern Turkey, Iran, and India.”

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Hunting Too Much: Case Studies of Joy and Remorse from Early Modern Turkey, Iran, and India

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the court cultures of the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal empires shared many things in common—religion, system of dynastic succession, literary tradition, Turkic-Mongol heritage, and gender roles, among other things. This talk focuses on one of the favorite pastime activities Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal elites also shared—big game hunting. For elites of these three Eurasian courts, hunting served symbolic, military, political, and leisurely purposes. The talk will discuss the many facets of royal hunting and then outline some of the most extreme cases of animal slaughter during these hunting expeditions. The talk concludes with the case of one royal in the late sixteenth century who felt deep remorse during one of his massive hunts, after which he shorn his top hair, adopted vegetarianism, and ordered his entourage to let his captured animals freed, rather than slaughtered en mass.

The countenance of Callorhinus – A life study of an adult male fur-seal. (full face of old male, profile and underfiew of female heads.

Prof. Helen Cowie

The University of York, UK


Wednesday, March 6 at 12:00-1:15 p.m. MT

Zoom: “Crocodile Tears and Fur Seals” 

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Crocodile Tears and Fur Seals: Consumption, Conservation and Cruelty in the Fur Seal Fisheries of Alaska, c.1870-1914

The Pacific fur seal was hunted throughout the nineteenth century for its thick fur coat. Every year, thousands of seals were culled on the Pribilof Islands in the Behring Sea. Their skins were shipped to London, where they were converted into shawls, pelisses, gloves and jackets.

This lecture explores the fur seal industry in the period c.1870-1914 and assesses its ecological impact. Once prevalent around the Pacific rim, the fur seal had already been wiped out in the southern Pacific Ocean through indiscriminate culling. Anxious to prevent its extinction in the Bering Sea, the US Government looked for ways to limit the slaughter, introducing quotas for the number of seals that could be killed each year, sending teams of scientists to study the breeding habits of the fur seal and prohibiting ‘pelagic sealing’ (the hunting of seals in the sea). The lecture considers the wider diplomatic clashes that resulted from the decline of the fur seal population and the challenges of protecting a marine animal that crossed territorial boundaries. It also discusses humanitarian critiques of the sealskin industry, which focused on the welfare of individual seals; one female consumer was so upset by ‘the dreadful cruelties’ committed by the sealing industry that she refused to purchase any sealskin jackets, ‘so grieved’ was she ‘at the thought of the butchery performed to procure them.’

This event has been generously supported by funding from the Boise State School of the Arts.

Thylacine on display in the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, Paris. Photograph by Dolly Jørgensen.

Dr. Dolly Jørgensen

Professor of History, University of Stavanger, Norway


Thursday, October 26, 2023 at 12:00-1:15 pm MT

Zoom: Extinction, Memory, Remembrance, Emotions

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Extinction, Memory, Remembrance, Emotions

We are currently living through a major extinction event with vast numbers of species across the planet rapidly becoming extinct because of human actions, from climate change to habitat conversion to pollution. The high number of species either recently extinct or facing imminent extinction and the great speed at which extermination is happening even exceeds the most well-studied extinction event—the dinosaur extinction at the end of the Cretaceous period. At least 322 vertebrates are known to have become extinct since 1500, and many more invertebrates and plants. What remains after a species has become extinct?

In order to answer this question, I turn to a discussion of endlings, art, and monuments in the case of the thylacine and passenger pigeon. I will argue that memory, remembrance, and emotional practices make extinction a subject ripe for humanistic inquiry.

This event has been generously supported by funding from the Boise State Center for Global Engagement.

Oil sketch of Hercules and the Nemean LionDr. Maurice Saß

Professor of Art History
Alanus University of Arts and Social Sciences
Alfter, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany


November 2, 2023 at 12:00 p.m. MT

Zoom: Art and Violence: The Hunts of Peter Paul Rubens

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Art and Violence: The Hunts of Peter Paul Rubens

This lecture delves into the deep-seated connection between hunting and art, drawing from an ecocritical analysis of three works by Peter Paul Rubens: Landscape with Het Steen, the Munich Lion Hunt, and the oil sketch Hercules and the Nemean Lion. By cross-examining the act of killing animals with the mimetic depiction of nature, Saß identifies an overlooked parallel between the hunter and the artist. Both assert dominion over nature, portraying it as something to be harnessed and subdued—a theme decipherable both in visual representation and textual sources. In probing this early modern normalization and aestheticization of nature’s violent conquest, what insights can we gain for our current ecological challenges?

This event has been generously supported by funding from the Boise State School of the Arts.

still life depicting a dead rabbit and bird on a table with a basket of fruitDr. Thomas Balfe

The Warburg Institute, University of London


Monday, November 13 at 12:00-1:15 p.m. MT

Zoom: Signs of life? Regarding animal violence in early modern still life painting

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Signs of life? Regarding animal violence in early modern still life painting

Still life paintings featuring animals killed in the course of the hunt had emerged as a popular form of European art by the middle decades of the seventeenth century. Unlike hunting scenes that show the pursuit of fast-moving birds and mammals, still life paintings isolate and immobilize the animal body, inviting the viewer to notice the violence suffered by the quarry during and just after the final stages of the chase – bite marks, blood stains, cuts and wounds, ruffled fur, and more.

These details indicate the deadness of the animal even as they call to mind its final, intensely lived moments of existence; they also suggest its status as a creature that, while not possessing a name, was nevertheless a particularized, vulnerable living being. This presentation will focus on the signs of death and life in early modern still life painters’ depictions of dead animals, asking how these would have been understood in a period when human exceptionalism was being renegotiated and ideas about the capacities, ensoulment and moral status of animals were emerging as topics of lively debate.

This event has been generously supported by funding from the Boise State Center for Global Engagement.

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