I write essays and books that draw on biography, art history, the lyric essay, literary criticism, and memoir. Some standing preoccupations: ways that writing can be both artistic and intellectual and create both deep experiences and new knowledge for readers; how an essay can be made to reflect multiple perspectives; ways that creativity is generated between people, often with art and literature as what mediates conversations across time.
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. I won a Guggenheim Fellowship for work on time and paintings. I have ongoing relationships with the Smart Museum, the Department of Art History, and the Art Institute of Chicago, collaborations that are fruitful both for my writing and for my teaching.
Work with Students
In my courses, students have developed exciting pieces grounded in nonfiction creative practices and exploring allied areas in art history, oral history, performance studies, and by thinking about political, geographical, sociological, memoiristic, and visual material. My courses are usually focused around writing about art, or writing about contemporary cultural and political life. I am one of the leaders of the Migration Stories Project, which has published a community anthology, presented an exhibition of art books, presented about ten public readings, and is soon to publish five chapbooks by faculty, students, alumni, and staff. I am also one of the co-advisors for Working Document.
- Writing About the Arts
- Migration Essays
- Writing Lives
- Writing in Crisis
- Austen Years, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 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 Cézanne.
- 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 Dailyand The Daily Beast,republished in The Australian Financial Review, and in The Utne Reader.Translated into French forContreligne, and into Polish for exhibition catalog at The City Gallery, Wroclaw.