Interactive Talks on American Art

“Rena’s ‘Painting Connecticut’ program was a big hit at the Scranton Memorial Library in Madison. On their way out the door attendees were already asking for her to make a return visit. The talk has a terrific blend of fascinating stories, beautiful artwork, and discussion of some artistic concepts and techniques. This program is accessible to art novices and experts alike. Highly recommended!”  
               Andy Northrup, Adult Services & Programs Librarian, Scranton Memorial Library
                                                                                                                    January 2018
“Rena’s high energy, thoroughly engaging art lectures include high quality visuals that engage the audience.  We’ve hosted her numerous times, and she remains a patron favorite!
                Tina Panik, Reference & Adult Services Manager, Avon Free Public Library, 2017

“Rena Tobey gave a marvelous presentation ‘Finding Her Way’ for the Middlesex Institute for Lifelong Education (MILE).  I loved the way that she interacted with the audience, and was able to elicit so many great comments, observations, and questions from them … as well as giving us a wealth of information.  Our group learned so much from Rena, and we had such fun learning that we could have stayed well beyond the program’s time frame — in fact, several of us did just that!”                                                                                                                                         Nancy Jordan, MILE Advisory Board Member, March 2016

“We were delighted with Rena’s presentation of ‘Clothes Make the Country: Fashion History and American Colonial Portraits.’  Rena’s enthusiasm for the subject was infectious, and the entire audience was enthralled. We look forward to having Rena return to the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum to share even more details on how to read early American portraiture.”                                                                                                                          Charles Lyle, Executive Director, Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum, October 2016

“Rena Tobey did an outstanding presentation for our patrons at the Lucy Robbins           Welles Library…We look forward to having her again!”                                                                                                            Head of Community Services, Newington, CT, May 2015


Rena conducts exuberant talks on American Art topics, including:

Clothes Make the Country: Fashion History and American Colonial Portraits

John Singleton Copley, Nicholas Boylston, c1769


American colonial portraits provide viewers important clues into the values, aspirations, and daily lives of men, women, and children in the 18th century. By closely examining several works, especially the clothing and accessories portrayed, participants will discover how paintings reflect the shaping of our unique American identity. This interactive session provides fresh ways to consider the formation of a nation.




Finding Her Way
Alternate Title: Dancing the Boundary: American Women Artists Negotiate Two Worlds

Theresa Bernstein, In the Elevated, 1916

American women artists, especially those working before 1945, had to navigate societal expectations of women’s domestic roles with their drive to be recognized as professionals. These artists often faced difficult choices–sacrificing in their personal lives or professional options. Their art often reveals this conflict. Despite evident talent and success, most fell into obscurity with their death. In this interactive session, participants discover and closely examine paintings by several artists, who collectively paint a picture of changing American attitudes during a pivotal growth period in American history.


Painting Connecticut

Beatrice Cuming, Saturday Night, New London, 1935-43

Beatrice Cuming, Saturday Night, New London, 1935-43

Many famous artists have been inspired by Connecticut’s pastoral tranquility and radiant light. But the story of Connecticut told through painting is so much more. Come explore stories of the state’s rich history through the painted canvas. Learn about the Colonial portrait painter who as a Loyalist fled to England during the Revolutionary War, only to return to paint Connecticut’s faces. Explore how painters helped create the myth of Connecticut all around the country. See the rise of industrialism and its uneasy relationship with farm culture. And yes, there are the transcendent landscapes, too. This talk is sure to give you new perspective on the place you inhabit every day, through this rich range of diverse artists and their compelling works.



Thomas Cole. View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, MA, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow. 1836.

Thomas Cole. View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, MA, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow. 1836.

When you think of America, these are the qualities you may think of first. Come explore how American identity has been shaped by images of the land, people, and city with art historian Rena Tobey. In this interactive series of talks, we’ll dig beyond the surface layers that create a streamlined, but simplistic notion of the American character. We’ll take a slow look at paintings that tell complex, often coded stories, reflecting both the challenges and greatness of our country.


Japonisme—Cross-Cultural Greetings:
American Artists Embrace Japanese Art and Culture

William Merritt Chase, Miss Dora Wheeler, 1881-1883

William Merritt Chase, Miss Dora Wheeler, 1881-1883

From the 1860s to the 1920s, Japanese art and culture fascinated Western connoisseurs. From famous American artists like James McNeil Whistler to anonymous women porcelain painters, the American art world was revolutionized through this cross-cultural contact, with influences on painting, printmaking, decorative arts, and architecture.  In this interactive session, participants will compare works of art by Japanese and American artists, consider how possibilities for women artists emerged, and delve into the Aesthetic, Arts and Crafts, and Art Nouveau movements that still influence visual culture today.


The New Woman Painter: Elizabeth Okie Paxton and The Breakfast Tray.

Elizabeth Okie Paxton.  The Breakfast Tray

Elizabeth Okie Paxton, The Breakfast Tray, c1910.

With The Breakfast Tray, Elizabeth Paxton invites us into a world—feminine, messy, sensual, and believable.  It is full of personality.  We dig into it trying to learn more about a woman who apparently was not shy, but left little record of who she was and what she cared about.  The implied presence in The Breakfast Tray is a New Woman.  She is educated and the beneficiary of improved health care.  She advocates for women’s right to vote, to work outside the home, to go to the theater unaccompanied, and to buy objects she uses to create an intimate space all her own, just as we see in The Breakfast Tray.  Come learn more about the opportunities and particular challenges of New Women painters and the unique voice of Elizabeth Okie Paxton.


Contemporary Art: Language of American Innovation

Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm, 1950

After 400 years of European-dominated art, the post World War II cultural world turned its attention to the U.S. With radical breakthroughs in how art was made and even defined, contemporary artists began a 30-year trajectory of visual and cultural innovation. In this highly interactive session, participants will learn the language of and influences on different contemporary art movements, gaining literacy and appreciation of the New.

To hire Rena or to learn more, contact her today.

“Rena was outstanding: She was extremely knowledgeable, personable, humorous, and willing to answer many questions.  She really helped us understand and appreciate the story behind each painting and put each one into perspective.”                                                                                               American Association of University Women, August 2012

“Your presentation yesterday was outstanding.  I only wish it had been video-taped for those who were unfortunate enough to have missed it…Your reputation as a must-see has been cemented.”                                                                                                                                                                               Docent, Delaware Art Museum, October 2010

On Isabel Bishop, “Dante and Virgil in Union Square,” 1932                                                  “Rena’s talk was terrific!  Loved it and learned so much–a whole new insight.”                                                                                 Delaware Art Museum, October 2010

On Dorothy and Herb Vogel, “Fifty Works for Fifty States”                                            “What a terrific talk!  You looked like you were having such a good time, which is why all the rest of us were having such a good time!  Many thanks for sprinkling us with your enthusiasm.”                                                                                                                                                 Delaware Art Museum, June 2010