Turning a Career Into Art

Lilien Robinson portrait

Earlier this semester, Art History Professor Lilien Robinson, CCAS BA ’62, MA ’65, showed her undergraduate class on 19th Century European Art a famous 1814 oil painting by the French artist Théodore Géricault titled “An Officer of the Imperial Horse Guards Charging.” In it, a mounted Napoleonic cavalry soldier appears to be in mid-attack even as his horse seemingly rears away from the battle. Even though she has studied Géricault for years—and was in the process of writing a journal article that included this very painting—Robinson remained conflicted about whether the French soldier was charging toward an enemy or away from one. So she turned to her students for guidance.

Lilien Robinson stands in front of photo of art

“Is the soldier fighting or retreating?” she asked her class. “What do you think?”

To many of her students, the moment was remarkable. Robinson is a revered professor with five decades of teaching experience and a mantle full of honors such as the Columbian College Excellence in Teaching Award, the Trachtenberg Service Prize and the George Washington University Award. And now she was asking them, her undergraduate students—many of whom had never even taken an art history class before—to help formulate her thoughts.

“As an undergraduate, I never had a professor ask me to respond to their own academic work,” said Elizabeth Brevard Doorly, a second-year art history graduate student who is currently Robinson’s graduate assistant. “But Professor Robinson is a consummate professor. She truly cares for her students and the development of their critical thinking skills.”

For Robinson, each lecture is like a blank canvas. She approaches every class as a fresh opportunity to spark passion in her audience—whether she’s introducing freshmen to French Realist painters and English Pre-Raphaelites or engaging her graduate seminar in discussions of major collectors from Catherine the Great to Duncan Phillips. As an art history student at Columbian College, Robinson fell under the spell of professors who “conveyed the wonder and excitement that human creativity elicits,” she said. As a GW teacher since 1965, she’s built a reputation as a beloved educator who stays in close contact with her students, some of whom she came to know in her first year teaching. Current and former students routinely send her museum selfies whenever they encounter a new exhibit.

“Lilien inspired in me a lifelong interest in art history and a sustained passion for inquiry,” said Steve Frenkil, BA ’74, a past president of the GW Alumni Association who remains a close friend. “She helped me learn about ways to consider art—techniques that were prevalent at the time; the role of politics and social issues; the implications of artistic, economic and practical constraints on artists; the realities of being an artist in different eras. Saying this makes me want to take her course all over again!”

Growing up in Serbia and living in Switzerland, Robinson developed her love of art early, traveling to view the great collections of the Louvre with a family devoted to creativity. When she arrived at GW, she enrolled in art history classes and was inspired by her instructors, especially former Professor Laurence Leite, a devoted teacher who informed his scholarship with a deep love of art. “Literally I sat on the edge of my chair from the first class on,” she recalled. “After that, there was no question that I was going to teach art history.”

–Originally posted on the Columbian College of Arts & Sciences website.

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