History and Art History: A Match made in the Past


This past week my students learned about Ancient Egypt. If you think about Ancient Egypt, chances are you will conger up images of pyramids, sphinxes, and hieroglyphs. Where is the line between History and Art History? For me, it is a gray area rather than a line as so much of the History I love can be considered Art too. When you study people that don’t have a written language, all you have from them is their artistic creations and the archaeological evidence they left behind. I’ll discuss History and Archaeology in another post. For today, here are some thoughts on Art, History, and Art History. Also, I’ll show you some examples of Art I use in my own research.

What is Art? The cop out definition is that Art is subjective, and it can be anything. In that case, what is History? The discipline of History has changed a lot since the 1960s and 70s when historians started to emphasize non-literate peoples and peoples who did not leave any written evidence of their own. Studying these peoples is difficult, but certainly not impossible. Often, like in my own research, a different group of people wrote about the non-literate people. Reading these second-hand documents is called “reading against the grain” and poses interesting conundrums for historians. How can we make assertions about a people from the observations of another group? Can we scrape away the subjective nature of a colonizer writing about the place he colonized and the people he enslaved? We can try. One of the most interesting ways to isolate this subjectivity is through Art and critiquing the art of one people that they made about another group.

Below are four images from a Spanish book of Costumes from the New World. I took photos of these pages at the Getty Institute in 2010. The book was created by an author who, as far as I am able to tell, never set foot in the Americas. His book illustrates costumes of indigenous peoples of the Americas where the Spanish colonized and enforced conversion to Christianity in Missions. These pictures demonstrate not the legitimate dress of Native Californians in the colonial period, but the Spanish ideal of how they looked before and after conversion. Look closely at the pictures and see if you can spot the differences between the figures. What is the artist trying to show? Why does he portray the women and men of California so differently before and after contact with the Missions? Do you think this is how these men and women would show themselves? Consider their postures, clothing, facial features, and the backgrounds of the pictures. Leave your thoughts in the comments.

“Muger Salvage de la California” (Female Savage of the California) Getty 2010, Photo by JoAnna Wall
“Muger de las Misiones de la California” (Female of the Missions of of the California) Getty 2010, Photo by JoAnna Wall
” Salvage de la California” (Savage of the California) Getty 2010, Photo by JoAnna Wall
“Hombre de las Misiones de la California” (Male of the Missions of of the California) Getty 2010, Photo by JoAnna Wall

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