Oliver O’Donnell


Dr Oliver O’Donnell
Research Associate
The Warburg Institute
Woburn Square
London WC1H 0AB
Tel: +44 (0) 207 862 8746
Email: odonnell@bilderfahrzeuge.org

Research project

Christopher Pearse Cranch, Illustrations of the New Philosophy (MS Am 1506), Houghton Library, Harvard University (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Portraits of Empiricism

Conceived as an art historical critique of the history of ideas, this project intervenes on standard narratives about 18th and 19th century Anglo-American empiricism through images that emerged in close historical proximity to some of empiricism’s most recognized figures and texts. Over seven chapters that address writers from Locke to Peirce, enduring works of high art by canonical artists—for instance, Ramsay and Trumbull—as well as ephemera of the visual culture of the time—for instance, the informal caricatures of the transcendentalist Christopher Pearce Cranch—are leveraged so as to create new perspectives on Anglophone thought, Anglophone visual culture, and the relations between them. Precisely because the English-speaking world is so heavily associated with empiricism as a mode of thinking, and precisely because images and empiricism are both self-evidently bound to the visual domain, the project critically investigates the essentializing relation between Englishness and empiricism through images, and thereby reveals how images can help us understand the historical and analytic contours of Anglo-American empiricism in new light.


C. Oliver O’Donnell is a historian of modern art and intellectual history with a particular focus on the Anglo-American traditions of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. Prior to his current appointment, he was a member of the “Languages of Art History” research group at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz – Max-Planck-Institut. He earned his PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, in 2016 with a dissertation entitled “Pragmatist Historians of Art,” which documents, describes, analyzes, and evaluates how a handful of prominent 20th century art historians explicitly looked to the reticulated philosophical tradition known as Pragmatism to construct their arguments. His dissertation project has been published as a series of articles in various academic journals (see below) and has also been expanded upon in his forthcoming monograph, Meyer Schapiro’s Critical Debates: Art through a Modern American Mind, soon to be published by the Pennsylvania State University Press.

Publications (selection)


Meyer Schapiro’s Critical Debates: Art through a Modern American Mind, University Park, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2019.

Edited volumes

Art History Before English: Negotiating a European Lingua Franca from Vasari to the Present, co-edited with Robert Brennan, Marco Mascolo, and Alessandro Nova. Milan, Officina Libraria, 2021.


“Two Modes of Mid-Century Iconology” in: History of Humanities 3/1 (Spring 2018), pp.113-36.

“Revisiting David Summers’s Real Spaces: a neo-pragmatist interpretation” in: World Art 8/1 (2018), pp.21-38.

“Berensonian Formalism and Pragmatist Perception” in: Zeitschrift für Ästhetik und Allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft 62/2 (2017), pp.107-30.

“Depicting Berkeleyan Idealism: a study of two portraits by John Smibert” in: Word & Image 33/1 (March 2017), pp.18-34.

“Reading Allan Marquand’s ‘On Scientific Method in the Study of Art’” in: European Journal of Pragmatism and American Philosophy 8/2 (December 2016).

“Meyer Schapiro, Abstract Expressionism, and the Paradox of Freedom in Art Historical Description” in: Tate Papers 26 (Autumn 2016).

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