New and old methods of art historical research

As a librarian in a fine art library, I was thinking about how I would characterise researching a painting and the parallel methodologies of research used; book and internet.

Traditional methods

The traditional method has been to use art books for the purpose of fact-checking: leafing through heavy, bulky reference tomes and, if you are lucky, to have in stock a monograph on the artist. In addition there may be archival files held in the gallery which collate aspects of a painting’s provenance, but the content of such archival files can occasionally be akin to a “lucky dip” in terms of what you can find.

However these methods of research remain the tried and tested methodologies in terms of art historical research and their consultation is a vital and continuing aspect of any research project. Regarding biographical dictionaries many of these would have indispensable reading lists, or bibliographies, providing the researcher with vital clues to the lives of artists, which the internet simply doesn’t cover to such a specific extent, nor provide a sufficient level of factual reliability, although “Wiki-thoners” would beg to differ.

Newer methods

On the other hand, the benefits of the internet to art historical research have been far reaching in terms of broadening the overall knowledge and contextual language of a painting. In terms of researching art, i.e. the interpretation of paintings, a vital new development has been the growing importance of Google Images as a high speed device showcasing comparative images for a key word search.

A contemporary example

An example of this is in a current research paper I am writing on a painting held in the National Gallery of Ireland. Entitled “Arras 1917” this oil on canvas is a depiction of the destroyed belfry of the town hall of this northern French town, painted by an obscure artist called Fernand Sabatte during the First World War.

From using traditional art historical resources, notably Benezit’s multi-volumed biographical dictionaries held in the library, scant albeit important information is available; his birth and death dates, where he was educated, some facts regarding his career as an artist, and the various prestigious art awards he received.

However by comparison, conducting searches on the internet has brought up a fascinating series of linkages regarding the subject of the NGI painting, showing that it is one of many painted depictions of Arras, being one of a series of bombed out towns including Louvain, Rheims, Soissons and Ypres, known generically at the time as “Les Villes Martyrs”, or Martyred Towns. Allied propaganda responded with outrage at the destruction of French and Belgian architectural patrimony, as shown in the following image. Here Reims Cathedral is shown in flames after hits by German artillery. The graphic artist Albert Robida produced this lithograph in 1915 in a set of 8 prints (including the burning Arras Belfry).

In each of the 8 engravings a demonic German eagle was positioned beside a burning French landmark. Such was the popularity of the destroyed Arras Belfry as a propaganda subject, that there is a similar artwork entitle “The destruction of Arras” and held in the Mariano Procópio Museum, painted by the Australian war artist George Washington Lambert. Similarities with the NGI painting are striking. The Lambert oil on canvas depicts the burnt out ruins of the Arras belfry from the same viewpoint as the NGI work and is executed in a very similar painterly style with a heavy use of oil impasto.

Destruição de Arrás 1916” by George Washington Lambert [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

These images produced one hundred years ago of course acted as propaganda for the Allies. A full range of visual media was employed; prints, books, postcards, newspapers, and even postage stamps (known as vignettes) depicted the “Villes Martyrs”, with similar, and in some examples, the same view as the NGI’s Arras Belfry. What we also discover is that the esteemed position of “fine art” has been used for the same function as demotic, folkish ephemera, that is, as a vehicle for political propaganda.

Andrew Moore, Library Assistant (National Gallery of Ireland)

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