I feel very lucky to have completed my doctorate in History of Art because if I get bogged down with writing I can always look at pictures! In this post I would like to encourage scholars working in other disciplines to also consider the visual as a valuable historical source. But how do you start when looking at paintings? Here I offer a few suggestions from my practice…
Describing a picture to yourself:
When looking at a painting in a gallery describe it to yourself (or annoy your friends/family who are visiting with you!) What is the content of the picture? How is it painted – does it employ any notable style or link with an artistic group? How is it special or distinctive compared with other paintings you have seen? I have found that when I start to describe pictures in my own words, the most interesting, incongruous or startling elements come to the fore. You realise when you are describing pictures how some visual elements don’t seem to fit with the rest, an object depicted may appear more defined and in focus than a figure for example. Thus looking begins a process of questioning and interrogating the artist’s aims and methods.
Gather all materials from contemporary sources that you can:
Reviews or conversations in contemporary journals will help you explore pictures. For me, working a lot on British art in the early twentieth century, I have looked at The Studio, Art Journal and Magazine of Art amongst others. Newspapers will also have many reviews since they feature art columns. You can search newspapers and periodicals such as The Times online in many library collections by an artist’s name. Historical newspaper reviews are fascinating in highlighting interpretations of works from entirely different perspectives to how we would look at them today. These reviews often throw up lots of leads and steer your research in new directions.
Read catalogue entries:
Has the work been exhibited in art exhibitions in the twentieth century? If so seek out those catalogues and read the curators’ entries. For paintings by famous artists like the Pre-Raphaelites for example, there are so many catalogues. I would recommend starting with the oldest (in this case 1850s) as well as the most recent (The Tate has had several Pre-Raphaelite exhibitions in the last ten years). Catalogues and reviews from artists’ lifetimes combined with these secondary reviews will offer a rich variety of interpretations. In the case of the Pre-Raphaelites these reviews raise questions of taste and why some artists go in and out of fashion.
This reading will inflect your opinion of artworks as your understanding of these historical layers grows.
View the work in situ:
If, alternatively, you have started with academic readings on artworks make sure you do go and view artworks in situ – usually in an art gallery or museum. I have also visited stately homes, National Trust properties and churches, to view altarpieces or stained glass windows. Your analyses of artworks are very likely to change when you see the picture in front of you. During your viewing you can engage with the themes and content of the picture and assess its effects on the viewer. Viewing the physical painting enables you to see the colours and brushwork for yourself rather than taking reviewers’ words for it. You might also perceive other effects from the picture that you did not think of when you looked at it in books/reproductions. Indeed viewers can have strong and unexpected emotional, spiritual or visceral reactions to artworks when they view them for the first time.
Think about the artist:
Read as much as you can about the artist including aims, biographical material and contexts, friends and networks they were associated with. Their own words can often offer the most valuable insights into their work. Scottish architect, artist and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh for instance wrote: ‘art is the flower – Life is the Green Leaf. Let every artist strive to make his flower a beautiful living thing, something that will convince the world that there may be, there are, things more precious more beautiful – more lasting than life itself.’ In the case of Mackintosh the artist’s words are critical to forming understandings of his art. He had a personal philosophy which shaped artworks ranging from buildings and large-scale architectural schemes to chairs. His ideas and artistic outputs are inseparable.
Think about historical context:
Finally seek to bring together visual and aesthetic features, personal elements relating to the artist, with historical context. Did the artwork confirm to normal visual precedents at the time or did it offer something new? How did the artwork revise or rethink what was accepted as artwork and why do you think the artist did this? Does the artwork interpret or engage with historical events, e.g. the First World War, and does it do this in ways that are different to other artists?
Here I have offered some food for thought on a vast subject. I hope you also find joy in seeking out artworks and consider discussing them in your own work.
Alice Eden is an Early Career academic and Associate Tutor in the History of Art department, University of Warwick. Her primary interests are modern British cultural history, spiritualities and feminisms, with expertise in Victorian and Edwardian art history. She currently works as a Research Curator at the Leamington Spa Art Gallery and Museum funded by Paul Mellon Centre Curatorial and Publication Grants. She is completing a book based on her thesis. Alice is writing and editing the catalogue for the Gallery’s forthcoming exhibition (Spring 2021) Modern Pre-Raphaelite Visionaries: British Art 1880-1930. Alice can be contacted via email and followed on twitter at @Alice_Eden4.