Questions Art Historians Ask

Review the “Questions Art Historians Use” section below Select two of the five questions. Explain what art historians are trying to gain by asking each question and how they might go about finding an answer.  

Next, select one of the two work of art below

I-14 PETER PAUL RUBENS, Lion Hunt, 1617–1618. Oil on canvas, 8′ 2″ × 12′ 5″. Alte Pinakothek, Munich


 Artists also represent single figures in space in varying ways. When Flemish artist PETER PAUL RUBENS (1577–1640) painted Lion Hunt (FIG. I-14), he used foreshortening for all the hunters and animals—that is, he represented their bodies at angles to the picture plane. When in life one views a figure at an angle, the body appears to contract as it extends back in space. Foreshortening is a kind of perspective. It produces the illusion that one part of the body is farther away than another, even though all the forms are on the same surface. Especially noteworthy in Lion Hunt are the gray horse at the left, seen from behind with the bottom of its left rear hoof facing viewers and most of its head hidden by its rider’s shield, and the fallen hunter at the painting’s lower right corner, whose barely visible legs and feet recede into the distance.



I-6 BEN SHAHN, The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti, 1931–1932. Tempera on canvas, 7′ 1 2 ″ × 4′. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (gift of Edith and Milton Lowenthal in memory of Juliana Force).


The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti is one of a series of twenty-three paintings that Ben Shahn made about the controversial trial of two working-class Italian-American immigrants, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.In 1927, the men were sentenced to death for armed robbery and the murder of a shoe company paymaster and his guard in South Braintree, Massachusetts. After a jury convicted them on the basis of circumstantial evidence, three specially appointed commissioners upheld the death sentence verdict. The case caused public outrage since the case against the two men was weak, and many believed that they were the victims of ethnic discrimination, right-wing politics, and a corrupt police investigation. Their execution provoked international riots and protest demonstrations. In this large-scale canvas, Shahn vividly portrays all the characters: Sacco and Vanzetti lying dead in their coffins; the unsympathetic commissioners who upheld the death sentence after years of appeal; and Judge Webster Thayer, who presided over the trial and passed sentence, taking an oath in the courthouse. Two members of the committee proffer lilies, a fraudulent mourning gesture in light of their decision. As a well-known symbol of the crucified Christ, the lilies also suggest that Sacco and Vanzetti are martyrs, punished for sins they did not commit


The Questions Art Historians Ask

HOW OLD IS IT? Before art historians can write a history of art, they must be sure they know the date of each work they study. Thus, an indispensable subject of art historical inquiry is chronology, the dating of art objects and buildings. If researchers cannot determine a monument’s age, they cannot place the work in its historical context. Art historians have developed many ways to establish, or at least approximate, the date of an artwork.    

Physical evidence often reliably indicates an object’s age. The material used for a statue or painting—bronze, plastic, or oil-based pigment, to name only a few—may not have been invented before a certain time, indicating the earliest possible date (the terminus post quem: Latin “point after which”) someone could have fashioned the work. Or artists may have ceased using certain materials—such as specific kinds of inks and papers for drawings—at a known time, providing the latest possible date (the terminus ante quem: Latin “point before which”) for objects made of those materials. Sometimes the material (or the manufacturing technique) of an object or a building can establish a very precise date of production or construction. The study of tree rings, for instance, usually can determine within a narrow range the date of a wood statue or a timber roof beam.     can help pinpoint the date of an object or building when a dated written document mentions the work. For example, official records may note when church officials commissioned a new altarpiece—and how much they paid to which artist.   

 Internal evidence can play a significant role in dating an artwork. A painter might have depicted an identifiable person or a kind of hairstyle, clothing, or furniture fashionable only at a certain time. If so, the art historian can assign a more accurate date to that painting.    

Stylistic evidence is also very important. The analysis of style—an artist’s distinctive manner of producing an object—is the art historian’s special sphere. Unfortunately, because it is a subjective assessment, stylistic evidence is by far the most unreliable chronological criterion. Still, art historians find style a very useful tool for establishing chronology. WHAT IS ITS STYLE? Defining artistic style is one of the key elements of art historical inquiry, although the analysis of artworks solely in terms of style no longer dominates the field the way it once did. Art historians speak of several different kinds of artistic styles.    Period style refers to the characteristic artistic manner of a specific era or span of years, usually within a distinct culture, such as “Archaic Greek” or “High Renaissance.” But many periods do not display any stylistic unity at all. How would someone define the artistic style of the second decade of the new millennium in North America? Far too many crosscurrents exist in contemporary art for anyone to describe a period style of the early 21st century—even in a single city such as New York.


Apply the two questions you have selected to the work of art. Explain how you went about finding the answers to the questions and what you ultimately found those answers to be.  

Be sure to include the citation for your selected work of art.

Your initial post must be at least 200 words in length.


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