Francophile honors

Art historian to be recognized by French government

When Tufts art historian Judith Wechsler was 15 and growing up in Watertown, Mass., she saw the French movie “Children of Paradise,” about street life in 19th-century Paris. The film kindled her passion for 19th-century French life and culture that continued unabated for the next five decades.


On November 19, Wechsler, professor of art and art history, will be honored by the French government with the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres for her 50-year body of work in French art. Created in 1957, the award, given twice a year, recognizes eminent artists, writers and others who have contributed to diffusing French culture in the world. Past American recipients include the writer Paul Auster, actors Robert Redford and Meryl Streep and choreographer Merce Cunningham, a favorite of Wechsler’s (she once trained with Martha Graham).

Wechsler has written three books, A Human Comedy: Physiognomy and Caricature in 19th-Century Paris, The Interpretation of Cézanne and Le Cabinet des dessins: Honoré Daumier and edited and introduced five other books.

She has made 22 short films on French art and theater, and spends most summers in France working on her film projects. Her most recent film, “Le dessein des Nymphéas” (Monet’s Water Lilies), commissioned by the Orangerie Museum in Paris, will premiere December 5 and 9 at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Wechsler also wrote and directed “Drawing, the Thinking Hand” for the Louvre in 1996, and “Honoré Daumier: One Must Be of One’s Time” for the Réunion des Musées Nationaux in 1999. She was awarded a Mellon Foundation Faculty Research Grant for the film “Rachel of the Comedie-Française,” which was co-produced with La Comédie-Française, and L’Institut National de L’Audiovisuel in 2003. She also wrote, directed and co-produced a six-part television series, “The Painter’s World,” with WGBH-TV in Boston and Channel 4 in London. All her films have premiered in the United States at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

Wechsler has received six grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, five CINE Golden Eagle awards and red ribbons from the American Film Festival and the Chicago International Film Festival. She has been the National Endowment for the Humanities Professor at Tufts since 1989 and has held visiting professor appointments at École Normale Supérieure in Paris, the University of Paris, X, the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Harvard University.

As the recipient of the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, Wechsler will be awarded a medallion and a lapel pin. “I’ll have to wear suits more often now,” she told the Boston Globe.

This story appeared in the November 2007 issue of the Tufts Journal.