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After a distinguished career as a historian and Princeton professor, Nell Painter had earned the right to a restful retirement. Instead, at 64, she started over, chronicling that adventure in “Old in Art School,” an inspiring, irreverent and fascinating look at her journey to become a “real” artist while earning degrees from Rutgers University and the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design.

As it turns out, a Harvard PhD and a slew of celebrated books, such as “The History of White People,” don’t get you far with art school professors. The skills and values Painter cultivated over the course of her career — rational discourse, analytic rigor and historical meaning — are regarded with suspicion, and she finds herself pigeonholed as too “academic” and “twentieth century.” One RISD professor tells her, “You will never be an artist.” Of the eight painting students at RISD, all graduate with honors except Painter.

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