Hubert Robert, Projet pour la Transformation de la Grande Galerie. 1796. Huile sur toile. H. 113; l. 143 cm. Musée du Louvre© RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Jean-Gilles Berizzi. Note the students sketching in the galleries — the woman on the left and the man in the center — and the reproduction painter on the right, with his easel and paintbox. The reproduction painter is in the process of working out the composition of the painting that he wishes to copy, and figuring, with the help of his stick/ruler, how to reduce the image in size while retaining the correct proportions.
I used to tell my students that, before everything was on the internet, art history students at Berkeley prepared for exams by studying reproductions on paper.
They would prepare by descending into the basement of Moffitt Library, where photographic reproductions of various artworks–usually rendered in black and white, and not always with great clarity–had been pinned to bulletin boards, along with identifying captions. There, in the bowels of the library, with the flickering fluorescent lights and the strange musty basement smells, you were supposed to commit everything to memory. It was not a particularly relaxing situation. The room was crowded, especially in the final days before the exam. The library had limited hours. To save money, the reproductions were all uniform in size — 8.5 x 11 inches — and it was often impossible to see them well, unless one pushed to the front of the group. You might only see an image once, and never again — since it wasn’t illustrated in the textbook and there was no way of tracking the work down again.
Inevitably, a student would interrupt my self-pitying reverie to ask, But what did they do before photography?
Well. The short answer: They were very, very sad.
The longer answer: They looked at engravings, or sometimes at copies made after important works.
The not-so-pleasant answer: In the days before cheap (and ubiquitous) photographic reproduction, art history was an expensive proposition.
In many ways, art history is still an expensive proposition. One way or another, you have to eventually get yourself in front of the actual object. Photographs–or their flickering, digital emanations–are no substitute.
Digital images are no substitute for the real thing, but they are useful tools, and they open up access. Imagine the resources required to actually see an artist’s entire oeuvre, even one belonging to an artist like Vermeer, whose corpus is extremely small.
Now, anyone with an internet connection can view Vermeer’s entire oeuvre. Through the Closer to Van Eyck website, they can study Jan Van Eyck’s Ghent altarpiece or examine the entire van Eyck corpus. I mention early modern European artists only because they relate to my own field of expertise, and it is impossible for one person to know everything. For something that’s neither early modern nor European: visit the Souls Grown Deep Foundation site to explore “the contributions of artists from the African American South, and the cultural traditions in which they are rooted.” Museums are starting to put entire collections online, often offering open access to the digital images themselves.
The internet offers a marvelous–and somewhat overwhelming–profusion of information. It also opens the doors to so much more: more scholarship, more creativity, more drawing and writing and thinking.
This piece appears in the JHI Blog’s February Reading Recommendations, Part 1. There is also a Part 2.