Art historian honoured by French Government

An Edinburgh art historian has been honoured with the highest cultural award in France for his outstanding commitment to the country’s art.

Professor Richard Thomson has been named a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Government.

The accolade is the highest rank of distinction that recognises significant contributions to furthering the arts in France and throughout the world.

Prestigious award

The Professor in History of Art at Edinburgh College of Art (ECA) joins an illustrious line-up of recipients.

Scottish actor Sir Sean Connery received the honour in 1987. Other notable past recipients include T.S. Eliot, Audrey Hepburn, Bob Dylan, Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, among other cultural luminaries.

The Commander Insignia was presented at a ceremony at the Consulate General of France in Edinburgh.

The Order of Arts and Letters was established in 1957 by the French Ministry of Culture.

The honorary decorations celebrate a significant contribution to the arts or literature.

The Order of the Arts and Letters has three grades, Commander, Officer and Knight, with up to 20 individuals a year made a Commander.

Award presentation
Professor Richard Thomson being appointed Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters by Madame Laurence Païs at the Consulate General of France

Professor Richard Thomson, a Research Professor in History of Art, was the Watson Gordon Professor of Fine Art between 1996 and 2018 at the University of Edinburgh, which merged with Edinburgh College of Art (ECA) in 2011.

He is an expert on late 19th and early 20th century French art and has published widely in the field for four decades.

Professor Thomson has led several collaborations to create major exhibitions with some of the most admired museums and galleries in the world, which collectively have been seen by over 5 million people.

He led the curating team behind the Claude Monet retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris (2010-11). The four-month exhibition, which included some paintings never before shown in France, was visited by more than 900,000 people.

An exhibition centred on the post-Impressionism masterpiece Circus Sideshow by Georges Seurat at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York 2017 focussed on a single work by the artist and attracted more than 140,000 visitors.

World-class exhibitions

Other notable achievements include the Monet & Architecture exhibition at the National Gallery in London in 2018 which shaped new ways of presenting the celebrated artist’s work.

The exhibition, which focussed on Monet and architecture, attracted 190,000 visitors and more than 200 reviews in major national and international publications.

Professor Thomson’s sustained commitment to French art has led to other blockbuster exhibitions including on the Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris in 1992 and the Theo van Gogh exhibition at the Musée d'Orsay, 1999-2000.

He served for several years on both the scientific committee of The National Institute of Art History in France and the Scientific Council of the Musée d'Orsay.

Family achievements

The illustrious accolade adds to the career achievements of the Thomson family. The Professor’s wife Belinda Thomson was made a Knight of the Order of Art and Letters in 2012.

Belinda has been connected to the University’s History of Art department as an Honorary Professor for more than a decade.

She specialises in late 19th century France, with specific reference to Gauguin and Van Gogh, the Nabi group, piano music and associated imagery.

She was principal curator of the exhibition Gauguin: Maker of Myth at the Tate Modern, London and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC in 2010.

I am extremely proud to have been given this great honour by the French government, and it has been an enormous privilege to work closely on research projects with such substantial public outreach in collaboration with French colleagues and institutions.

Professor Richard ThomsonEdinburgh College of Art

 Edinburgh  College of Art (ECA) 

History of Art 

Main image  -  Professor Richard Thomson taking a teachers' session at the Monet & Architecture exhibition at the National Gallery in London in June 2018.