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David G. Frey Associate ProfessorBust portrait of Maggie Cao
Hanes Art Center 206

On leave in Spring 2024

B.A. Harvard University, 2006
Ph.D. Harvard University, 2014

Maggie Cao is a scholar of eighteenth and nineteenth-century American art in a global context. She studies the history of globalization with particular interest in intersections of art with histories of technology, natural science, and economics. Her first book, The End of Landscape in Nineteenth-Century America (University of California Press, 2018) examines the dissolution of landscape painting as a major cultural project in the late nineteenth-century United States and argues that landscape is the genre through which American artists most urgently sought to come to terms with modernity. Cao has also written on media theory, material culture, and ecocriticism. Her recent publications include essays on the print culture of the earliest worldwide financial bubbles and the materiality of export art made in eighteenth-century China.

She is currently finishing a second book entitled Painting US Empire: Nineteenth-Century Art and its Legacies, the first synthetic treatment of nineteenth-century art and empire in the global context. The project offers revisionist readings of globally-themed artwork. Subjects include landscapes of the tropics and Arctic, trompe l’oeil still lifes of imported goods, ethnographic portraits, and genre scenes linked to tourism. The book aims to connect historic American paintings to the flows of commodities and peoples through colonial systems and infrastructures in the decades leading up to formal U.S. colonization in 1898. It also tackles the legacy of American imperialism, connecting the metropolitan, Euro-American painters of the past with the more racially diverse global artists of the present. The book will be published by Chicago University Press in 2024.

Professor Cao received her doctorate in art history from Harvard University in 2014 and did postdoctoral work at Columbia University’s Society of Fellows before coming to UNC in 2016. At UNC, she teaches the history of American art from the colonial period to the twentieth century as well as courses on the visual histories of science and economics.

Professor Cao has received fellowships for her research from the National Humanities Center, the Terra Foundation, and the Smithsonian. In spring 2024, she will be a visiting scholar at the Getty Research Institute.

Selected Publications

“The Readymade and the Counterfeit: The Material Conditions of Art and Money,” in Intermedia, edited by Ursula Frohne and Racheal Delue (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2023), 126-153

“‘Is it Cake?’ feeds viewers visual catharsis for uncertain times,” The Conversation, April 7, 2022

“Playing Parrot: American Trompe L’oeil and Empire,” The Art Bulletin 103, no. 3 (2021): 97-124.

 “Maritime Media and the Long Eighteenth Century”, Journal18, Issue 12 The ‘Long’ 18th Century? (Fall 2021).

The End of Landscape in Nineteenth-Century America (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2018)

“The Entropic History of Ice,” in Ecologies, Agencies, Terrains, edited by Christopher Heuer and Rebecca Zorach (New Haven: Yale University Press and Clark Studies in the Visual Arts, 2018), 266-291.

“Copying in Reverse: China Trade Paintings on Glass,” in Beyond Chinoiserie: Artistic Exchange between China and the West during the Late Qing Dynasty (1796-1911), edited by Jennifer Milam and Petra ten-Doesschate Chu (Leiden: Brill, 2018), 72-92.

“Fabricating Value between Mint and Studio,” Social Research 85, no. 4 (Winter 2018), 837-858.

“Ice-Scapes,” American Art 31, no. 2 (Summer 2017): 48-50.

“Forgery Fiction,” Public Books, October 1, 2016

“Abbott Thayer and the Invention of Camouflage,” Art History 39 (June 2016): 486-511

“Washington in China,” Common-Place 15, no. 4 (Summer 2015)

“Heade’s Hummingbirds and the Ungrounding of Landscape,” American Art 25, no. 3 (Fall 2011): 48-7


Current courses:
The Visual World (a team-taught intro to art history)
Picturing Nature

Other course offerings:
Art and Money
Art and Environments
Introduction to American Art
Making Material Histories (A Makerspace Integrated Course)
American Art and the Globe
Media and Materiality