Richard Thomson profile picture

Job title:

Professor in History of Art, History of Art


Room 0.48, Higgitt Gallery, Hunter Building


Richard Thomson is Research Professor in the History of Art. He was Watson Gordon Professor of Fine Art between 1996 and 2018, 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 Studies48/14. 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). His latest book is The Presence of the Past in French Art, 1870-1905. Modernity and Continuity (2021).

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 latest exhibition was Monet & Architecture (London, 2018).

In 2012, the French government appointed him Officier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, promoting him to Commandeur in 2018.


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; Seurat’s Circus Sideshow, 2017), 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 some five 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 exhibitions were Splendour and Misery. Pictures of Prostitution, 1850-1910 (Paris, Musée d’Orsay/Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum, 2015-16), Seurat's Circus Sideshow (New York, Metropolitan Museum, 2017) and Monet & Architecture (London, National Gallery, 2018).

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

Related programmes