Introducing Asst. Professor Steffani Bennett, the Joan B. Mirviss Chair in Japanese Art

Last month began a new era in Japanese art history at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, with Assistant Professor Steffani Bennett, the Joan B. Mirviss Chair in Japanese Art, joining our Badger community. A specialist in medieval Japanese art (14th–16th c.), Prof. Bennett is particularly interested in the subject of Japan’s cultural interactions with its neighbors in the East Asian region, including China and Korea.   

Raised in East and Southeast Asia as the daughter of American diplomats, Prof. Bennett was exposed to the arts and culture of East Asia throughout her childhood, including trips to museums and temples in Taiwan and Beijing. However, Japan and its culture was less familiar since Prof. Bennett’s family never lived in Japan. After graduating from high school in Taiwan, where she began her study of the Japanese language, Prof. Bennett went with her mother on a transformative trip to Kyoto. This trip was her parents’ graduation gift to her. This experience in Japan inspired her course of study as an undergraduate at the University of Washington, where she majored in art history with a focus in Japanese art. While continuing her graduate education at Harvard University, Prof. Bennett was drawn to learning about the life and artwork of a fellow traveler, Japanese painter Sesshū Tōyō (1420–ca.1506). 

Prof. Bennett is in the process of writing her first book manuscript, tentatively titled Profession of the Brush: Sesshū Tōyō and the Painterly Profession in Muromachi Japan. Her forthcoming book, the first English-language monograph on this seminal Japanese painter in eighty years, examines the reasons for Sesshū’s enduring legacy, arguing for the painter’s instrumental role in redefining artistic identity in premodern Japan. Her research into the life and work of Sesshū Tōyō, the first professional Japanese painter to travel to China, will provide a valuable contribution to the field of Japanese art history by deepening our understanding of the complex history of cross-cultural exchange in medieval East Asia.  

During the current fall semester, Prof. Bennett is teaching an introductory course on Japanese art and architecture, and in the spring will be teaching a course on the history of Japanese woodblock prints. In the future, Prof. Bennett intends to develop an array of topical courses in the field of Japanese art, as well as interregional courses that explore the history of cross-cultural encounter through the lenses of visual and material culture.   

We are also excited to share that the furry UW–Madison art history community has expanded with Prof. Bennett’s adoption of two Pomeranian puppies: Maya and Lili! It was a top priority of Prof. Bennett to adopt a four-legged friend (or two!) upon moving to Madison. Maya and Lili will be in good company with the other recent canine and feline additions to the department.   

As the world moves back to some of the norms of pre-Covid life, we are thrilled to see what cross-cultural East Asian projects Prof. Bennett will dazzle us all with in the years to come.  

Image: Professor Steffani Bennett with Maya and Lili. Photo courtesy of Prof. Bennett.