Sarah Burns received her Ph.D. in art history at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and has been a member of the faculty in the Department of the History of Art at Indiana University, Bloomington, since 1979. Burns is widely recognized as one of the leading and most influential scholars in the field of American art history today. Her 1989 book Pastoral Inventions: Rural Life in Nineteenth-Century American Art and Culture (Temple University Press) was a Choice Outstanding Academic Book the year of its publication. It has since become a classic study of the relations between high and popular art in Victorian America and has been cited as a model for future scholarship. Her 1996 book, Inventing the Modern Artist: Art and Culture in Gilded Age America (Yale University Press) was awarded the Charles C. Eldredge Prize for outstanding research in the field of American art, an honor conferred by the National Museum of American Art in Washington, D. C.
Burns's achievements have received further recognition with her appointment as Distinguished Visiting Professor of American Art and Material Culture at Stanford University in 1998-99, and a Senior Fellowship at the Stanford Humanities Center in 1999-2000. Her 2004 book, Painting the Dark Side: Art and the Gothic Imagination in Nineteenth-Century America, (University of California Press) won the College Art Association's Charles Rufus Morey prize for an especially distinguished book in the history of art.