Joanna Woods-Marsden (1936-2023)

The door to a professor’s office often provides clues to the research interests and personality of the scholar who labors within. Color photocopies of Renaissance paintings related to Dr. Joanna Woods-Marsden’s graduate seminars often graced her office door in Dodd Hall. Raphael’s gorgeous portrait of the humanist Baldassare Castiglione with his thoughtful blue eyes and billowing gray-fur sleeves hailed students during the semesters she taught her beloved portraiture graduate seminar. Earlier, when the Art History department was located in Dickson Hall, cartoons related to art and art history from the New Yorker magazine plastered every inch of her door. Professor Woods-Marsden’s door embellishments point to her profound interest in the human labor and creativity involved in the creation of Renaissance art and culture. But her research and teaching were always leavened by her contagious sense of humor and fun.

Seated individuals from left to right: Allyson Williams, Heather Graham, Joanna Woods-Marsden, and Maria DePrano. Individuals standing from left to right: James Fishburne, Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank, Lisa Boutin-Vitela, and Jennie Liston Wehmeier.

Dr. Woods-Marsden earned her Ph.D. at Harvard under the guidance of Dr. James Ackerman, filing a dissertation entitled Pisanello: Court Painter in Mantua in 1979. She had earlier earned her B.A. degree at Dublin University, Trinity College in 1957 with honors in Italian and English. Her 1965 M.A. thesis, also from Dublin University, Trinity College, considered Manuscripts of Boccaccio’s “Filostrato.” Between her B.A. and M.A., she studied at the Courtauld Institute of Art History at London University. She then emigrated to Canada where she served in museum positions at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and EXPO 67, also in Montreal. She spoke fondly of her work coordinating international exhibitions for the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.

Professor Woods-Marsden taught at the University of British Columbia from 1980 to 1984, where her inspiring lectures and rigorous seminars were much appreciated. She then moved to UCLA where she remained for the rest of her teaching career, from 1984 until her retirement in 2010, during which time she led the department in the field of Italian Renaissance Studies. At UCLA, she taught popular undergraduate surveys on early modern European art and upper division courses on the art of Renaissance Italy. Her carefully designed graduate seminars on specialized themes remain topics of conversation and points of scholarly departure among her former students. The syllabi for her graduate seminars were carefully arranged, so that students could grasp the development of crucial debates in the field of early modern studies. The breadth and depth of her scholarly interests was exemplary as was her dedication to constant evolution as a scholar and teacher. Her graduate seminars were at the avant garde of scholarship, engaging themes ranging from Renaissance portraiture, religion, and court arts, to the developing histories of material culture, gender, the human body, and emotions.

Professor Woods-Marsden was an exacting, yet prolific scholar, producing vital research in the study of court art and Renaissance portraiture. Her first book, The Gonzaga of Mantua and Pisanello’s Arthurian Frescoeswas published by Princeton in 1988, an extension of her dissertation that challenged the then accepted primacy of central Italian and Venetian art.  At the time of her book’s publication, few scholars of Renaissance art had looked beyond Florence, Rome, and Venice. She was a trailblazer in recognizing the enormous cultural importance of artistic centers, like Mantua and Naples, largely overlooked and misunderstood by generations of scholars. The book was supported by a fellowship at the Villa I Tatti, the Harvard Center for Renaissance Studies in Florence in 1979-1980 and the Andrew W. Mellow Fellowship in Art History from the American Academy in Rome in 1986-1987. She spoke in later years about the close acquaintance with fresco conservators that she developed while performing field research for her dissertation and first book. Her work on the Mantuan Pisanello frescoes also resulted in articles in a variety of publications: the conference collection for the 24th International Congress of Art History, Art History, a collection of essays in honor of Craig Hugh Smyth, Master Drawings,  Arte Lombarde, and Pisanello: Actes du colloque Musée du Louvre.

Dr. Woods-Marsden’s second book, Renaissance Self-Portraiture: The Visual Construction of Identity and the Social Status of the Artist was published by Yale University Press in 1998 and was short-listed for both the 2000 Charles Rufus Morey Prize from the College Art Association and the 2000 Gordan Prize from the Renaissance Society of America. The research for this widely-admired book was supported by the Paul Mellon Visiting Senior Fellowship from the Center for Advanced Studies in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., a National Endowment in the Humanities Fellowship, and a Fellowship at the National Humanities Center at Research Triangle Park in North Carolina.

Her Self-Portraiture book cemented Professor Woods-Marsden’s reputation as a major scholar of early modern studies and led to invitations to publish and speak. She was invited to present at the study day and to contribute an essay entitled Portrait of a Lady, 1430-1520 for the exhibition Virtue and Beauty: Leonardo’s Ginevra de’ Benci and Renaissance Portraits of Women organized by the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. She was an invited participant at the Colloquium on Self-portraiture organized by the National Portrait Gallery in London. She contributed “The Beginnings of Self-Portraiture in the West” for the 2006 exhibition catalog About Face: Self-Portraiture by Native Americans, First Nations, and Inuit Artists at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

She had long been working on a book provisionally entitled Visual Rhetoric of Power and Beauty: Gendered Identity in Titian’s Court Portraits. In preparation for that book, she edited Titian: Materiality, Likeness, Istoria, published by Brepols in 2007. She also published articles, such as “The Sword in Titian’s Portraits of Emperor Charles V” for Artibus et Historiae in 2013 and “Le autorappresentazioni di Tiziano” for the catalogue Tiziano: un autoritratto: problemi di autografia nella grafica tizianesca that accompanied the 2014 exhibition at the Museo Correr in Venice, Italy.

Dr. Woods-Marsden was an active member of the College Art Association and the Renaissance Society of America (RSA). She served as the RSA art history discipline representative (1994-1997, 2003-2006) and wrote numerous book reviews for the society’s journal Renaissance Quarterly. She presented her research nearly every year at the RSA’s annual conference where she was surrounded by fond friends and colleagues. She was a member of the UCLA Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (now called the Center for Early Global Studies), where she served on many committees and presented her research.

Professor Woods-Marsden is survived by family in Ireland, including her beloved brother Robert Woods; and brother-in-law Mark Hely Hutchinson, widower of her much-loved sister Margaret. She is also survived by her northern California family: brother Ben and his wife Fiona, and their daughter Cliodhna Woods; and by her sister Catherine Woods and her sister’s family, husband David Stowell, and their children Rowan Cassius Woods and Sophia Woods. Her cat Isabella, named for the formidable Marchioness of Mantua, Isabella d’Este, has joined Dr. Woods-Marsden’s northern California family and is enjoying her bohemian San Francisco lifestyle.

In Dr. Woods-Marsden’s not-ample spare-time she enjoyed opera, travel, and all-things Italian. She also participated in an informal play-reading group whose company she greatly valued and she was a cherished member of her Unitarian Church congregation.

Professor Woods-Marsden’s former students now teach at the University of Iowa; UC Merced; California State University, Long Beach; Cerritos College; San Diego State University; and work as the Director of the Forest Lawn Museum. Her students strive to continue the exacting research and commitment to solid composition that she worked so hard to teach us.