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Art history prof. remembered for wit, warmth and intelligence

Rebecca Molholt Vanel died of cancer at 44

Rebecca Molholt Vanel, assistant professor of history of art and architecture, strongly believed in engaging with an object’s historical context. Lying on the floors of exalted art galleries, she would often risk a scolding from a security guard in her quest to see an ancient Roman mosaic from the perspective of its original viewers — under their feet.

Other times, when no one was looking, Molholt Vanel would splash a little water on a mosaic, illustrating how it would have looked as a wet floor in a home, said Elizabeth Marlowe, an assistant professor of art history at Colgate University and friend of Molholt Vanel’s since graduate school.

Molholt Vanel died July 12. She was 44 years old and suffered from pancreatic cancer, friends and colleagues told The Herald.

President Christina Paxson sent an email Monday notifying the Brown community of Molholt Vanel’s death, describing her as “a remarkable and promising young scholar, a dedicated and inspiring teacher and a warm and caring adviser and colleague.”

Molholt Vanel came to Brown in 2008 as an assistant professor in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture. She was a core faculty member of the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World and worked closely with the department of Italian studies and the program in medieval studies.

Beginnings of a ‘brilliant’ career

Molholt Vanel graduated cum laude from Clark University in 1992 with a bachelor’s degree in art history. She then received her masters in art history summa cum laude from Williams College in 1996 and earned a doctoral degree in 2008 from Columbia's department of art history and archaeology.

Even before arriving at Columbia, she had accumulated considerable knowledge through her curatorial work in the Worcester Art Museum’s extensive collection of Greek and Roman art, which impressed and excited her peers, said Marlowe, also a historian of Roman art. As a student, Molholt Vanel had already “cut her teeth in the field,” offering “brilliant insights” while remaining “unpretentious” and considerate of her classmates, Marlowe added.

Molholt Vanel also traveled extensively throughout her career to view the ancient Roman art that inspired her scholarship.

Through the friends she made throughout her studies, Molholt Vanel helped form a network of Romanist students and professors at schools in the Pioneer Valley area of Massachusetts. The group of historians expanded over the years and became known colloquially as “the Pioneer Valley Roman Forum,” said Marlowe, a member of the forum.

By the time Molholt Vanel arrived at Brown, she was already seen as a rising star in her field and more “seasoned” than other scholars her age, said Professor of History of Art and Architecture Douglas Nickel, who helped hire Moholt Vanel and mentored her as a new professor.

 She received several awards before coming to Brown, including the esteemed Arthur Ross Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome in 2004-2005 and the David E. Finley Fellowship from the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts from the National Gallery of Art.

Molholt Vanel’s scholarship earned her growing recognition in the ancient Roman art history field after she started teaching. She authored a 2011 article in Art Bulletin, a premier journal of art historians.

‘A gifted teacher’ and scholar

Professors and students praised Molholt Vanel for her enthusiasm for teaching and passion for art history.

Her command of a wide range of historical knowledge and her growing reputation as a creative and eager instructor led many students to enroll in classes like HIAA 0010: “Introduction to the History of Art and Architecture” — a survey course that she volunteered to teach as a way to serve the department and engage with students, Nickel said.

Molholt Vanel’s intellectual curiosity and thoughtfulness made her lectures on contemporary art as captivating as those on the objects of antiquity in which she specialized, said Monica Bravo GS, a former teaching assistant to Molholt Vanel.

Molholt Vanel was open about the challenges archaeologists and historians face in determining the ownership and context of ancient objects. After being invited to attend a January 2012 symposium at Bowling Green State University on the university’s recently purchased ancient Roman mosaics, Molholt Vanel notified the school that she had uncovered evidence that the pieces had been looted from an archaeological site along the Euphrates River in Turkey. Her expertise helped the university determine the origins of the mosaics and consider repatriation of the materials to Turkey, according to a 2013 Journal for Roman Archaeology article.

She “was as original and inspiring in her teaching as she was in her research, reinvigorating the study of ancient art in our department after a long period in which it seemed to have fallen out of fashion,” wrote Professor of History of Art and Architecture Evelyn Lincoln in an email to The Herald.

Molholt Vanel was invited to lecture numerous times on Romanist art, including at RISD, John Hopkins University and Mount Holyoke College.

Molholt Vanel could bring students “to the edge of their seats,” said Julia Telzak ’15, an art history concentrator who took Molholt Vanel’s intro course as a first-year. Molholt Vanel “instilled in me a curious attitude” about art history, Telzak added.

“Sometimes students would clap after lectures and she would push it aside, but that is a testament to what they saw in her,” Bravo said.

Molholt Vanel was “a gifted teacher,” said Emilia Mickevicius GS, adding that she had “a beautiful way with words when she was talking about art.”

An intellectual and ‘brilliant friend’

Even after receiving her diagnosis, Molholt Vanel continued to engage with scholars in the field and came back to Brown to teach in the fall of 2012 after undergoing chemotherapy.

Colleagues and friends noted that though she was serious about her scholarship, Molholt Vanel was warm and optimistic about life.

Despite her humble and gentle nature, Molholt Vanel also had a “wicked sense of humor,” said Georgina Borromeo, curator of ancient art at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum.

Students commented on her wit, which was at times unexpected in the middle of a lecture on ancient art, but always “fresh and interesting,” Mickevicius said.

Molholt Vanel remained engaged in Romanist art and history throughout her treatment. She attended a seminar in Paris last year with other leading experts in the mosaics field, said Mary Hollinshead, associate professor of art history at the University of Rhode Island. Molholt Vanel brought her characteristic sense of humor to the experience, describing the conference as a chance to meet the entire bibliography of her dissertation, Hollinshead added.

Molholt Vanel also stayed dedicated to her students, encouraging them to pursue their scholarship. Even when she was on medical leave and living in Paris, she responded to emails with career advice and encouragement, Bravo said.

“Rebecca’s colleagues and students loved her. She will be missed for her grace, intelligence, courage and warmth,” wrote Professor of History of Art and Architecture Jeffrey Muller in an email sent to The Herald.

Molholt Vanel’s “total engagement with art, music and literature from antiquity to the present, and the meticulous care with which she wrote about and taught it, changed the people who were fortunate enough to engage with her in this life,” Lincoln wrote, adding that Molholt Vanel was “an intellectual in a truer sense of the word than we usually use it.”

In her memory, there will be a Rebecca Molholt Vanel Memorial Fund established “to support student programs” in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture at Brown, according to an email from the Molholt family sent to friends and colleagues.

Molholt Vanel is survived by her husband, Herve Vanel, a former assistant professor of history of art and architecture at Brown and now a professor of art history at the American University of Paris. The couple met as colleagues in the art history department at Brown.

A funeral was held on Friday in France, friends of Molholt Vanel told The Herald.

As a scholar, Molholt Vanel was “perfectly positioned to write,” Lincoln wrote. “It is a tragedy for our field that we will never have those books, and it is hard for those of us who knew and worked with her to now forever be deprived of our glamorous and brilliant friend and colleague.”


- With additional reporting from Sabrina Imbler


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