What do you think of when you visit your local art museum- or any art museum, for that matter? Just a collection of paintings and sculptures? They’re much more than that, in many ways than one. But for this post, I’ll just focus on one, something that shouldn’t be neglected in discussions of art: that it’s an important way to discuss history.
One of the most obvious reasons is because paintings, especially portraits, provide windows to the past. Within reason, we know what some of the most famous people in history look like- possibly with the addition of a few wrinkles. We know what they themselves wanted to be painted with, and in what clothing, and how- and that says something about their personalities that might not have otherwise been revealed. For example, if they wanted to be portrayed with fine objects, like this man, maybe they want to display their newfound wealth or were very concerned with material goods and appearances.
Another important thing to consider in this interdisciplinary look at art is that what is painted and how reveals the values of their society as a whole. Sometimes, even the materials used can provide insight. Like in the previous example, if being painted with fine material goods and clothing is common, maybe it depicts the desire of elites to display their status or for newly wealthy merchants and manufacturers to assimilate into the upper class.
In illuminated manuscripts, which I talked about in a previous post, the heavy use of gold may display both the wealth of the person who commissioned the work and their exaltation of God, and therefore, their piety. If idealized figures are common, it suggests that the Renaissance ideals of the perfection of man may be at work.
Investigating the history and provenance of the paintings themselves is also a method of gaining insight into the lives of those involved. Who was it painted for, and during what time period? Who did the painting, and what were the conditions like in the workshop, for the artists and anyone else involved? Where has it been displayed, and were they ever considered controversial? Through what hands has it passed through to get to where it is now, and what does that say about the values of their eras and the people themselves? Is the art part of a long tradition of a certain style, or was it something completely new?
So, on your next museum visit, challenge yourself, and anyone with you- especially kids and students- to think critically about what they’re looking at. Ask questions about the story behind the piece. It’s a good way for people to visualize history in a way that maybe they haven’t before- and hopefully, they’ll learn something about art, too.