I write essays that draw on biography, art history, the lyric essay, literary criticism, and memoir. Essays I’ve written on artists and writers – their friendships, fallings out, and the work they make – have appeared in publications including the New Yorker, the Guardian, the London Review of Books, the Believer, Art in America, Apollo Magazine, McSweeney’s and Best American Essays. These magazine pieces are often the outcroppings of long-standing inquiries, pursued through immersive reading and looking. My material develops slowly in notebooks – one of which I keep on line at rachelecohen.com – and this gradually becomes book-length work. My books are on quite different subjects: literary and artistic friendships among thirty figures between the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement; the shaping of Gilded Age aesthetic taste and collections of paintings in imbrication with commerce and prejudice; the way that at a turning point in life one may inhabit books, with Jane Austen as a guide; the experience of time in paintings. All, though, are rooted in some standing preoccupations. I am curious about how an essay can be made to reflect multiple perspectives, can even seem to be told from multiple points of view; I am interested in the ways that creativity is generated between people, often with art and literature as what mediates conversations across time; and I am interested in the ways that writers and artists are complicated combinations of the margins and the center, working in fluctuating conditions of authority and exclusion.
My third book, Austen Years, is a work of literary criticism and memoir, that begins from some recent years in my own life, years in which my father died and we had two children, and in which I seemed only to read the novels of Jane Austen. In the spiral of its consideration, each of the novels is wound together with an introspective inquiry about what it is to live into and out of books. Austen Years is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in winter of 2020.
The project I am in the midst of is called Time in Pieces, and is a study of how painters and print-makers have considered and represented time (time in moments and stretches, imaginative time, time distinct from or influenced by photographic time, hours of the day, seasons of the year, time in sequence and out of sequence.) I am studying Edo period Japan, Impressionism in Paris, Surrealism as it stretched from Paris to Mexico City, and Abstract Expressionism, and writing essays that move among these artistic movements. I won a Guggenheim Fellowship for this project, and am finding it very fruitful, now that we are in Chicago, to be near the wonderful art resources here including the Art Institute and the Smart Museum of Art, both institutions with which I have ongoing relationships.
Through the Creative Writing Program, I am one of the leaders of the Migration Stories Project, which has published a community anthology, presented an exhibition of art books, and presented about ten public readings featuring student work, co-curating these with campus institutions including the Smart Museum, the Lab Schools’ Social Justice Week, the United Nations Festival of Human Rights through the Pozen Center, and UndocuArts, presented at the Center for Identity + Inclusion. I am also one of the faculty advisors for our undergraduate publication Working Document.
Sample of Courses Taught
Writing Lives (advanced nonfiction); Writing About the Arts (advanced nonfiction.)
Workshops offered and planned: Migration Essays, Writing in Crisis, History of the Essay (through the lens of journeys), Drawing from Life.
Students have developed exciting pieces by exploring allied areas in art history, oral history, performance studies, and by thinking about medical, political, geographical, sociological, memoiristic, and visual documentation.
- Austen Years, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, forthcoming 2020.
- Bernard Berenson: A Life in the Picture Trade, New Haven and London: Yale University Press Jewish Lives Series, 2013. Milan: Adelphi, 2015. (Longlisted for the JQ Wingate Prize)
- A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists, New York: Random House, 2004. London: Jonathan Cape, 2004; Milan: Adelphi, 2006; Beijing: New Star Press, 2009; Bern / Vienna: Pier Meyer Verlag, 2018. (Winner of the 2003 PEN/Jerard Fund Award, finalist for Guardian First Book Prize, PEN/Martha Albrand first nonfiction award.)
- Apollo Magazine
- “Rooms of Her Own: Berthe Morisot.” Cover feature on Berthe Morisot and recent retrospective exhibition, September, 2018.
- “The Long View.” Feature on Deering Galleries of Medieval and Renaissance Art at the Art Institute of Chicago. March, 2017.
- The New Yorker
- “Priceless,” October 8, 2012. Bernard Berenson, Joseph Duveen, and the gilded age art market.
- “Village Scribe,” November 13, 2006. On Leonard Woolf’s writing life.
- “Life Studies,” November 1, 2005. On the novel that ended the friendship of Emile Zola and Paul
- The Believer
- “Gold, Golden, Gilded, Glittering,” November / December 2012. Essay on simultaneous innovations in the realms of painting and banking from Siena in 1300 to Damien Hirst in our own day. Featured on Three Quarks Daily and The Daily Beast, republished in The Australian Financial Review, and in The Utne Reader. Translated into French for Contreligne, and into Polish for exhibition catalog at The City Gallery, Wroclaw.
Complete publications and online notebook at: www.rachelecohen.com
EducationA.B. Harvard University, 1994. Teaching at Chicago since 2016.
Photo © Peter Serling, 2013