Richard Thomson has been Watson Gordon Professor of Fine Art since 1996, having previously taught at the University of Manchester.

He read Modern History at St Catherine’s College, Oxford, has a postgraduate Diploma in the History of Art from Oxford, and gained both an MA and a PhD from the Courtauld Institute, London University.

Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1998, Richard was a Guest Scholar at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, in 1993, the inaugural Van Gogh Museum Visiting Fellow at the University of Amsterdam in 2007 (invited back as the tenth in 2016), and Slade Professor of Fine Art at the University of Oxford in 2008-9.

The founding Director of the Visual Arts Research Institute Edinburgh (VARIE), from 1999-2004, Richard has received significant funding in support of his research, including a Leverhulme Research Fellowship (1995-6) and grants under the Arts and Humanities Research Board/Council Research Leave Scheme (2002 and 2008), as well as acting as Principal Investigator for the International Network Redefining European Symbolism, 1880-1910, funded by Leverhulme Trust (2010 -13), a collaboration with the Musée d’Orsay, the Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art, the Van Gogh Museum and the National Galleries of Scotland. He has served on a number of editorial boards, including Van Gogh Studies, 48/14. La Revue du Musée d’Orsay and Revue de l’Art.

In addition he has wide experience as a member of boards of management, having been a founding director of Cornerhouse (1985-95) and a Trustee of the National Galleries of Scotland (2002-10), as well as sitting on the Comité scientifique, of the Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art, Paris (2008 -14) and the Conseil scientifique of the Musée d’Orsay (2010 -17).

His publications in the field of late nineteenth century French art are extensive. His books include Toulouse-Lautrec (1977), Seurat (1985), Degas. The Nudes (1988), Edgar Degas: Waiting (1995), Framing France. The Representation of Landscape in France, 1870-1914 (editor, 1998), Soil and Stone. Impressionism, Urbanism, Environment (co-editor with Frances Fowle, 2003), The Troubled Republic. Visual Culture and Social Debate in France, 1889-1900 (2004), Vincent van Gogh: The Starry Night (2008), and Art of the Actual. Naturalism and Style in Early Third Republic France, 1880-1900 (2012).  

Richard has curated or co-curated many exhibitions for major international museums, which have been seen by some 5 million people. These include The Private Degas (Manchester/Cambridge, 1987), Camille Pissarro. Impressionism, Landscape, Rural Labour (Birmingham/Glasgow, 1990), Toulouse-Lautrec (London/Paris, 1991-2), Monet to Matisse. Landscape Painting in France, 1874-1914 (Edinburgh, 1994), Seurat and the Bathers (London, 1997), Theo van Gogh (Amsterdam/Paris, 1999-2000), Monet, 1878-1882: The Seine and the Sea (Edinburgh, 2003), Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre (Washington/Chicago, 2005), Degas, Sickert and Toulouse-Lautrec. London and Paris, 1870-1910 (London/Washington, 2005), Monet, 1840-1926 (Paris, 2010-11), Dreams of Nature. Symbolism from Van Gogh to Kandinsky (Amsterdam/Edinburgh/Helsinki (2012-13), Splendours & Miseries. Images of Prostitution in France, 1850-1910 (Paris/Amsterdam, 2105-16), Seurat’s Circus Sideshow (New York, 2017). His next exhibition will be Monet & Architecture (London, 2018).

In 2012, the French government appointed him Officier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.


My teaching is both wide and closely related to my research interests. The aim is to teach students to look very closely as works of art, as they are primary evidence for the art historian, and to encourage the understanding of the object within its historical and cultural context. In classes I actively stimulate discussion between the students, believing that the best seminar is an engagement between informed but different points of view. Sessions in the outstanding galleries in Edinburgh are crucial to my teaching.

The second year lectures are my broadest canvas, covering the long nineteenth century from c.1789 to 1914. Art from most of western Europe is covered, with lectures which are monographic, on movements, and on themes not broadly covered in textbooks such as power, nature and gender. Embedded in these lectures are an emphasis on the close reading of pictures, an engagement with historical processes and a critique of style labels. My third year Honours course, Europe 1900, covers the period c.1880-1910, and looks at artists from not just from France, but Germany and the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland, Catalonia and Scandinavia. This short but intense period opens students to unfamiliar artists (Hodler and Hammershoi, Ensor and Gallen-Kallela) as well as placing artists in the complex currents of the period, embracing decadence and scientific advance, interplay with literature and music, and the tensions between nationalism and internationalism. My fourth year Honours course, Avant-gardes and Individuals, 1886-1900, covers a short period of French art, between the final Impressionist exhibition and the Exposition Universelle which marked the run of the century. This course is concerned not only with the creation of avant-garde identity through artistic style but also engagement with exhibitions, criticism and the art market.  

Impressionism and the Third Republic is an MSc course covering the years 1870-1900. It assesses the evolution of Impressionism both in relation to contemporary historical processes but also in relation to the dominant naturalism of the era.

Research interests

Thomson’s research interests are primarily in late nineteenth century art, with a particular expertise in French art. 

While he has worked on major artists – writing a substantial monograph on Seurat and curating a record-breaking retrospective of Monet – he has also published articles on less fêted painters of the period, including Jean-Jacques Henner, Jean-Charles Cazin, Louis Anquetin and Henri Martin.

Among his books are two short ones on individual works of art by Degas and Van Gogh and - by contrast - two thematic monographs on  large themes in late nineteenth century French culture and politics. 

The Troubled Republic (2004) explores four themes central in French public life during the 1890s – the eroticisation of the visual and the fear of national degeneration; the crowd; tensions between the Third Republic and the Catholic Church; and the urge for revanche against Germany – by using a wide range of imagery from visual culture to probe the national mentalité.  

Art of the Actual (2012) argues that during the 1880s and 1890s naturalism was the dominant aesthetic in France because its legibility as a ‘document’ of modern France allied it to the egalitarianism of the Republic, and investigates how artists resistant to this consensus might phrase their work in terms of the caricatural, the populaire and the organicist.

Thomson has worked extensively as a curator of exhibitions, both solo and as part of a team. 

There have been thematic shows on landscape, such as Monet to Matisse (1994) on French landscape painting between 1874 and 1914, and Dreams of Nature (2012-13), a pioneering investigation of European Symbolist landscape imagery.

Others have spanned relatively neglected media (Impressionist Drawings, 1986), focussed on a single great work (Seurat and the Bathers, 1997), or investigated the art market (Theo van Gogh, 1999-2000) and international exchange (Degas, Sickert, Toulouse-Lautrec, 2005-6).

Exhibitions he has curated or co-curated have been seen by over four million people, and they include the most successful art exhibition staged at the Grand Palais in Paris - Monet, 1840-1926, which was seen by 913,064 visitors in the four months between 22nd September 2010 and 24th January 2011.

His most recent major exhibition, Splendour and Misery. Pictures of Prostitution, 1850-1910, is on show at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris from September 2015 to January 2016 and travels to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in spring 2016. He is currently working on an exhibition about Georges Seurat's great painting Parade de cirque, which will be staged at the Metropolitan Museum, New York, from February to May 2017.

Research outputs

For full details of Thomson’s research outputs, please see his profile in the Edinburgh Research Explorer.

Current PhD students

PhD Supervision Topics

  • Late Nineteenth Century French Art