The role of biography in art history makes me uneasy. On the one hand, it feels impossible to approach certain artists without it in mind. To take a well-known example, Frida Kahlo: how can we consider her work without recalling the events that changed the trajectory of her life? The physical damage wrought by her bus accident as a young woman feels embedded in the surfaces of some of her paintings. At the same time, the work of an artist whose biography looms large in the discourse around them can fade into the background. Rather than help us to understand objects more profoundly, biography can reduce artworks to mere illustrations of an artist’s life, rather than the product of it. If this concern is valid for artists, it is equally true for their subjects. Scholarly analysis of portraiture is often filtered through our knowledge of the sitter’s biography. Similarly, the...

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