James Elkins is Chair of the Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, as well as Chair of the Department of Art History at University College Cork in Ireland.
James Elkins grew up in Ithaca, New York, separated from Cornell University by a quarter-mile of woods once owned by the naturalist Laurence Palmer.
He stayed on in Ithaca long enough to get the BA degree (in English and Art History), with summer hitchhiking trips to Alaska, Mexico, Guatemala, the Caribbean, and Columbia. For the last twenty years he has lived in Chicago; he got a graduate degree in painting, and then switched to Art History, got another graduate degree, and went on to the PhD in Art History, which he finished in 1989. (All from the University of Chicago.) Since then he has been teaching in the Department of Visual and Critical Studies and the Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
He married Margaret MacNamidhe in 1994 on Inishmore, one of the Aran Islands, off the West coast of Ireland. Margaret is also an art historian, with a specialty in Delacroix. His interests include freshwater microscopy (with a Zeiss Nomarski differential interference microscope), optics (he owns an ophthalmologist’s slit-lamp microscope), stereo photography (with a Realist camera), playing piano, and winter ocean diving.
His writing focuses on the history and theory of images in art, science, and nature. Some of his books are exclusively on fine art (What Painting Is, Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles?). Others include scientific and non-art images and archaeology (The Domain of Images, On Pictures and the Words That Fail Them), and some include natural history as well (How to Use Your Eyes).