Tanya Sheehan is William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Art at Colby College and a research associate at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. She currently serves as Principal Investigator of Colby’s first Public Humanistic Inquiry Lab, a grant-funded faculty research initiative focused in 2021-24 on medicine and race. She previously held a variety of leadership positions at the college, including the inaugural Director of Research at the Lunder Institute for American Art (2018-21), Director of the American Studies Program (2019-20), Chair of the Department of Art (2015-18), and Special Advisor to the Provost (2016-18). In that last role she led the development of a campus-wide arts and innovation initiative and co-authored Colby’s environmental humanities grant funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in 2017-20.
Across her career, Sheehan has worked at the intersection of American art history and critical medical humanities. Her first book, Doctored: The Medicine of Photography in Nineteenth-Century America (Penn State Press, 2011) argues that medical models and metaphors helped strengthen the professional legitimacy of studio photographers and define the cultural identity of photographic portraiture in the Civil War and postbellum periods. Doctored concludes with a chapter on digital photography and contemporary makeover culture. Sheehan’s current book project, for which she was awarded a 2019-20 Boston Medical Library Fellowship in the History of Medicine, examines modernist art by African Americans that explores Black agency through the subjects of medicine and public health. Chapters focus on American art from the 1930s to 1960s by Charles Alston, Jacob Lawrence, Henry Bannarn, Georgette Seabrooke Powell, and others.
Winner of a 2018 Terra Foundation for American Art International Publication Grant, Study in Black and White: Photography, Race, Humor (Penn State Press, 2018) shows how photographic humor was used in the United States and across the British empire to express evolving ideas about race, Black emancipation, and civil rights. The book employs a trove of understudied primary sources that encompass the rise of the commercial portrait studio in the 1840s, the popularization of amateur photography around 1900, and the mass circulation of postcards and other photographic ephemera in the twentieth century. It also places historical discourses in relation to contemporary art that critiques racism through humor, including the work of Genevieve Grieves, Adrian Piper, Lorna Simpson, Kara Walker, and Fred Wilson.
Sheehan has edited four volumes on photography and its histories, including Photography, History, Difference (Dartmouth College Press, 2014), Photography and Its Origins (Routledge, 2015, with Andres Zervigon), Grove Art Guide to Photography (Oxford University Press, 2017), and Photography and Migration (Routledge, 2018). Her most recent edited book, Andrew Wyeth: Life and Death (DelMonico, 2022), accompanies an exhibition of the same title at the Colby College Museum of Art. She has also published numerous essays on images of Black subjects in the US and Europe, on race and American art, and on vernacular photography from the nineteenth century to the present. A list of her publications is available on the Department of Art website.
Interdisciplinary research has significantly shaped her teaching of American art history, African American visual culture, art and science, race and representation, and the history of photography. Engaging with a broad range of visual forms – from high-status paintings to snapshots and new media – her courses emphasize the relationship between images and social history, identity formation, and popular culture. Many prioritize experiential learning, innovative research, and civic engagement, such as the humanities labs she created through the Photography and Migration Project.
Since 2015, Sheehan has served as executive editor of the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art Journal. In this role she has developed special issues on African American art, artist Robert Motherwell, Latino art, art and the environment, and feminism and archives, in addition to integrating into the journal special commissions by contemporary artists and curators.
In 2019 Sheehan was elected to the membership of the American Antiquarian Society (AAS). She previously held a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship at the AAS in 2010 and led the 2017 summer seminar organized by the AAS’s Center for Historic American Visual Culture.