Kristel Smentek is an historian of eighteenth-century European art with specializations in histories of the graphic and decorative arts, the history of collecting, and European encounters with Asia. Smentek has received fellowships and awards from the American Council of Learned Societies, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC, and the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery, Washington, DC, among others.
In her first book, Mariette and the Science of the Connoisseur in Eighteenth-Century Europe (Ashgate, 2014; paperback Routledge, 2017), she analyzes the transformation of scholarly discourse on art in Enlightenment Europe through an investigation of the celebrated eighteenth-century print dealer, book publisher, and connoisseur of art and antiquities, Pierre-Jean Mariette (1694-1774). Her work situates Mariette’s praxis within the intellectual and social structures of the eighteenth century and elucidates the historically specific meanings of collecting and connoisseurship as forms of knowledge and social distinction. Mariette's own scholarship and his ambivalence about the market he helped bring into being provide the context for an examination of the emergence of ‘art’ and ‘aesthetics’ as categories of intellectual inquiry and the ideological opposition of both to commerce in an era of consumer revolution. She has continued to publish interpretations of Mariette's activities, most recently on his ambivalent engagements with Persian art in Prints as Agents of Cross-Cultural Exchange (2021), and his enduring (and erroneous) constructions of Giorgio Vasari as a collector of drawings in A Demand for Drawings: Five Centuries of Collectors and Collecting Drawings (2018).
In her new book project, Disorient: Arts from China in Eighteenth-Century France, Smentek analyzes European engagements with Asian imports in the eighteenth century and their impact on continental art and aesthetic theory. This project unites two central themes of her research: the role of the display practices in structuring the reception of art and the cross-cultural dimensions of eighteenth-century European artistic production. She has published articles and book chapters related to this research in Une des provinces du rococo: la Chine revée de François Boucher (2019), Thresholds (2019), Eighteenth-Century Art Worlds: Local and Global Geographies of Art (2019), Beyond Chinoiserie (2018), Imagining Qianlong: Louis XV’s Chinese Emperor Tapestries and Battle Scene Prints at the Imperial Court in Beijing (2017), Journal18 (2016), Journal of Early Modern History (2016), and Qing Encounters: Artistic Exchanges between China and the West (2015).
Smentek is also active as a curator. She is the co-curator of the exhibition Dare to Know: Prints and Drawings in the Age of Enlightenment, which examines the constitutive role of works on paper in the propagation of European Enlightenment ideals and blindspots, and a contributor to and co-editor of its accompanying catalog (Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge MA, September 16, 2022 - January 15, 2023). In her earlier exhibition and catalog, Rococo Exotic: French Mounted Porcelains and the Allure of the East (The Frick Collection, NYC, March-September 2007), she examined the eighteenth-century French fascination with Asia as manifested in mounted Chinese porcelains. European engagement with the visual culture of the Ottoman Empire is the subject of her article on the eighteenth-century self-described "Turkish" painter Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702-1789), published in Ars Orientalis in 2010. This project originated in an exhibition of Liotard’s work she helped organize at the Frick in 2006.
While her research and curatorial work is anchored in the eighteenth century, Smentek’s teaching bridges the modern and early modern periods. She teaches courses on European visual and material culture from the fifteenth century to the present, ornament from the Rococo to the 1920s, material histories of art and design, the history and theory of the art museum, the history of collecting, the visual cultures of the European Enlightenment, and Asian-European encounters in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.