Guest Post: Janine Yorimoto Boldt, “Looking at Early American (Art) History”

Janine Yorimoto Boldt is a PhD candidate in American Studies at the College of William & Mary. She is writing a dissertation that explores the social function of domestic portraiture in Virginia between Bacon’s Rebellion and the American Revolution.

1956-561“Why should a historian read your dissertation? How can portraits tell us something new, rather than confirm what historians already know?”

The historian on my dissertation committee posed these questions during my prospectus colloquium. They haunt me when I sit in the archive and now it hangs over my head while I write. These questions only enhanced the feeling of the disciplinary divide between art history and history that I already observed. One of my comprehensive exam fields was early American cultural history. Reading early American history, I noticed how few historians engage art historical scholarship. Usually, the art histories are relegated to the footnotes as an obligatory afterthought. For example, after mentioning the fact that so-and-so had a portrait a footnote reads, “for more information on portraiture in the colonial period, see these [three sources here].”

To be fair, in the field of art history, there are few recent monographs that focus on early American art, and fewer that are object-centric. Wendy Bellion’s Citizen Spectator: Art, Illusion, and Visual Perception in Early National America (2011) and Jennifer Roberts’ Transporting Visions: The Movement of Images in Early America (2014) are recent and excellent studies of early art that place the object at the center of their analyses. Several cultural historians write about artists or write histories that revolve around art objects, but they tend to circle around the object instead of engaging in deep material and visual analysis. Biographical information about producers and consumers take center stage, rather than foreground the art as an agent. In the field of early American art, especially the colonial period (and on artists other than John Singleton Copley), there is a lot more work to be done.

When asked about current trends in historical scholarship, a recent visiting historian on campus told graduate students that we need to engage more with visuals. When they said this I was thrilled! I agree! Then, they said, “but not how to do visual analysis. That’s not important.” Why not? Why do so many historians dismiss the importance of the visual? Surely images can function as more than “wallpaper” and portraits can be used as more than illustrative of a historical figure’s likeness. At another event, after presenting an argument based on visual analysis of a woman’s portrait, a historian told me to “stick to evidence” from documents. However, this woman left virtually no archival evidence. All that she left to posterity was her portrait, and an unusual one at that. Do I not have an obligation as an historian to interpret this piece of historical evidence to the best of my ability in order to tell her story? Doesn’t the portrait count AS evidence in and of itself?

Certainly there are some disciplinary divisions in training and method. However, as the humanities become increasingly interdisciplinary, I hope that the divide between history and art history closes a bit and more historians choose to engage with art. We live in a hyper-visual world and historians can help students learn to think critically about historical images to prepare them for critically engaging with contemporary media. With that in mind, here are some suggestions for incorporating art into history classes and scholarship:

Discuss images in class. I have seen many historians use PowerPoints with images in lectures and presentation. Do more than use the images as simple illustrations. Pick a key image and dissect it as you would a primary source document. Ask questions like:

  • Where was it displayed? What does that say about visibility the intended audience?
  • How was it meant to be seen? Is it a small image meant to be held close? Was it part of a set of images? Was it a large statement piece?
  • Who made it? Who commissioned it? Why?
  • What can the image tell us about this event/person/culture that written documents cannot?

Think about assigning images as primary documents. In assignments that involve analyzing a primary source, consider using a image as an option. Or, consider pairing an image and a document.

Think critically about whether the image you include is appropriate. Are you using a images from the 1850s to illustrate an event in the 1770s? Include an image caption that references, at minimum, the date of creation and the artist. Dates matter!

Use images as evidence. Images are forms of material culture and are cultural texts. If your research brings you to images, try to do more than include them as “wallpaper” illustrations. Images are material, they are constitutive of culture, and visuality is formative.

As an American Studies graduate student, and an undergraduate with a double major in art history and history, I have taken a number of “traditional” history courses. Except for material culture seminars, I have not seen images used widely in the history classes. As an interdisciplinary scholar, I am interested in how other disciplines engage with art. Do you have any other suggestions for utilizing images? Do you regularly use images or assign art history texts?

6 responses

  1. Yes, the portrait counts as historical evidence in and of itself–stick to your guns! Nice specific suggestions for how to incorporate visuals. And please know that I’ve been teaching history using visuals as evidence from day one of my first postdoc and for the most part, students love this methodology and (more important) learn and remember history from it. Keep fighting the good fight!

    • Thank you for your supportive words! The positive response I’ve receive to this post gives me hope that more historians are recognizing the importance of understanding and using visual culture.

  2. Teaching early American music history I turn to images very often–and really, before the 1760s at least, visual art is often the ONLY clue as to the contexts in which different sorts of music were performed. This afternoon my students will be looking at three different illustrations of church music-making in the eighteenth century, and analyzing what evidence they bring to bear both on the publications in which the images appeared and on attitudes towards the music depicted.

    And trust me, Americanist musicologists get the same opposition from “traditional historians,” not to mention having to deal with disrespect from other musicologists who think early American music is artistically insignificant. There’s nothing for it but to forge ahead. I like to refer doubters to Stephen Marini’s excellent 2006 article “Hymnody as History,” which explains how truly insightful an inroads sacred music can be to vernacular or “lived” religion.

  3. This is a fantastic piece, well done on the part of the author, and thanks to the Junto for posting it! Interdisciplinary is the way to be in 2017. Would love to hear more on the portrait of William Byrd II that you included from the Colonial Williamsburg collection (and why you included it!).

    Visual and material culture can and should be studied as carefully as any archival document, nothing is mutually exclusive and these sources do more than simply illustrate. I especially appreciated the reminder about context, and it has always fascinated me to see what image goes on a book cover. I’m amazed and only slightly enraged when something like Currier and Ives is chosen for books on really any historical topic from before 1850!

    On a related note, perhaps the Junto might consider changing its cover image, which depicts the interior of Lloyd’s Coffee House in 1798. Lloyd’s was a London establishment, and the image is the work of British caricaturist George Woodward. Although I certainly see the reasoning behind using this image (it’s a great visual for the diffusion of news in a pre-blog era), this article provides a lot of food for thought. I’d also add that the image is one peopled exclusively by white men, and coffee houses were male-centric spaces. Maybe the Junto could hold some sort of contest or take submissions!

    • Thank you! I see now that my caption for the Byrd portrait did not make it into the post, but I selected the portrait of William Byrd II for a two reasons. First, the Byrds amassed a collection of over 30 paintings at Westover plantation from ca.1680-1775, most of them collected by William Byrd II. The size of this collection speaks to the importance of art in the eighteenth century. Second, I’m studying colonial Virginia, so I wanted to include a Virginia image. This particular portrait of Byrd is attributed to the Studio of Sir Godfrey Kneller and dates to ca.1704.

      • Thanks Janine! Westover must have been quite the place in its heyday…the paintings, the library! Agreed on the importance of the Byrd collection, it would make a really great exhibition if you could locate enough of the paintings and get them in one place, no idea if anyone has tried that before. Also great reminder to think of people like Byrd as trans-Atlantic.


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