involves making sense of what is known so that the unknown can be explored.
The confusion of online art research arises from the multiplicity of subjects
such as ownership, location, category of artwork, history, and other aspects
involved in pinpointing a certain artist or artwork. When one chooses to
avoid fee databases such as Dialog, with its formal searching structures,
the searching tasks multiply. The process generally covered here is just
one of many methods that enable a coherent organized search.
is the process of going up alleys to see if they are blind."
Herbert A. Simon wrote
in The Sciences of the Artificial (Third Edition, The MIT Press,
Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1996, P. 211), "There is now a growing body of
evidence that the activity called human problem solving is basically a
form of means-ends analysis that aims at discovering a process description
of the path that leads to a desired goal. The general paradigm is: Given
a blueprint, to find the corresponding recipe."
Searches in the
field of art research may involve multiple online databases, so trying
to program a search according to the fields each database assigns requires
too much peripheral information and time. Upon reflection the analogous
question becomes, "Is it better to spend time preparing and improving swim
techniques — OR — to spend time on memorizing the pool dimensions, depths,
and hours of operation for all the different swimming pools I might use?"
The optimum process
requires understanding the function of the needed and given information
before taking action. Howard S. Becker, in his wonderful book on the process
of research, Tricks of the Trade: How to Think About Your Research While
You're Doing It (University of Chicago Press, 1998, p. 44), writes,
"Making activities the starting point focuses analysis on the situation
the activity occurs in, and on all the connections what you are studying
has with all the other things around it, with its context." Such connections
for art researchers are precisely essential to the better terminology,
more accurate querying, and higher-quality retrievals.
The "science" of
online art research lies in organizing the facts about an artwork, by asking
a few simple, easily remembered "connection questions" first from the client's
standpoint and then from the resource standpoint.
Once these questions
are answered, the next step is to prioritize them according to the clients'
request. In all likelihood simple searches won't require all six questions
answered or verified, but the entire process of asking them and considering
the answers to the questions remains an invaluable thinking guide that
automatically yields key concepts and primary search terms to prioritize.
the artist, or client or subject?
the medium, technique used?
When in time
does/did the artist live, create the artwork, die?
/did the artist live while creating this artwork?
this artwork created?
How much is
it worth, as in asking price, value, actual sales price?
Apply the same
connection questions to the source side of the equation. Programming the
search will help to identify the type of information needed, but the next
step is to identify the appropriate sources. Optimal sources are those
that gather the information, maintain it for their own needs primarily,
and then secondarily allow others access to it for free or for a fee. By
asking the connection questions you will have a better view of the possible
sources for the information you're seeking.
Client "Connection Questions"
(image search, museum/collection search, auction /sales search, provenance
"I have an image
and I don't know who painted it."
"I need to find
out whose portrait this is."
"I need to find
out who owns the copyright on this painting."
search, auction/sales search)
"I know the name
of the artwork, the artist, and where it is now, but I need to know if
it was painted on vellum, paper, wood, canvas, or glass, etc."
"I need to find
out if it was ever included as a plate or illustration in a book."
"I need to find
Baroque paintings of flowers."
search, auction/sales search)
"I need to find
when this painting was painted (period, style, actual date)."
"I need to find
out if this artwork was painted during the artist's "blue period.'"
search, exhibition catalogue/catalogue raisonnes, provenance search)
"I need to find
the current location of a certain painting."
"I need to find
out who owns the copyright." (First it will be necessary to find out where
the artwork resides.)
"I need to compile
a list of all the owners of an artwork (provenance)."
search, exhibition catalogue/catalogue raisonnes)
"I need to understand
the choice of medium for these specific years (during which there happened
to be a war that limited certain supplies or perhaps the artist acquired
a wealthy patron and improved the quality of their art supplies, etc.)
"I need to find
out if Vincent van Gogh made a living by selling his paintings."
"I need to find
out how much this painting sold for 20 years ago."
"I need to find
the current value of a painting."
= Who collects and uses information of this type? Private and public individuals
and entities such as collectors, appraisers, dealers, auction houses, museums,
companies, libraries, universities, designers, architects, companies, investment
and tax consultants, researchers, database aggregators, publishers, and
= What information do these entities make accessible — for free or for
fee — to the public? In what forms — CD-ROM, print, microfiche, online,
or a combination of several? What subjects do these entities specialize
= From what date to what dates do the records in this reference source
cover? When and how often is the source updated?
From where do these entities get their information? Has this information
been a part of another database or reference source in the past?
= Why do these entities obtain the information? Do they use it for education,
display, investment, collection, administration, or just for a tax shelter?
Does the source buy, donate, or sell art? With public and/or private money?
Source Information Flow
The Art research
process, graphically represented.
search priorities, a starting point might require different databases —
a museum collection rather than an image library, a provenance database,
a timeline filled in with each painting sold at auction, or all source
types in various combinations. What you retrieve may require a reorganization
of priorities, given the high fluidity of online art resources.
line is a dot that went for a walk." —Paul Klee
Browsing is as essential
to the art search process as "serious" searching. Process teaches that
fact-finding questions will more likely advance solutions, but also can
enable artistic intuitive insights or leaps. Browsing presents a broad
view of the search subject, a mere dipping of toes into the pool to check
the temperature of the water. A quick search on the name of the artist
or the subject (if a portrait) provides broad instantaneous clues such
as level of coverage by chosen search engines; major museum, gallery or
library collections and arts directory sites to investigate; languages
other than English involved; and period or style. Receiving few retrievals
or no retrievals from an artist's name search doesn't necessarily indicate
the quantity of information available, but it may well indicate the advisability
of expanding target terms to more interdisciplinary, multi-lingual thesauri.
of retrievals from browsing improves the mental sifting needed to evaluate
the most likely sources according to the connection questions. This activity
is the mental equivalent of "priming the pump" — getting enough pressure
to raise water from the deepest well. A scan for interesting resources
in the retrieval citations might provide the client with the information
they need and leave nothing more than the verification to complete. But
for more complex or illusive searches, this is a good time to get familiar
with the contextual settings of the artist and his or her work, along with
the type and quality of information likely to be found.
At this point the
search is like dipping your toes in the water of a broad reflecting pool
that's only one-half-inch deep. The "facts" provided by the client may
well be accurate — but you need to verify them. Caution, reflection, and
attention to details are all good habits, even when verifying the target
information at Web sites of the most reputable museum, library, or university
collections. Verify the spelling of names, geographic locations, titles
of paintings, and dates, whenever possible. Additional languages and alternative
spellings of artists' names and even of everyday words, such as watercolor
(American English) and watercolour (British English), will provide
more target term options. Watch for any discrepancies in spelling, in dates,
in any of the information the client gave you. If you find any such discrepancies,
note them and re-check sources before going on to other reputable sites.
Finding any differences doesn't necessarily indicate fraud, but the field
of art research always involves concerns about authenticity.
In a recent search,
I found that some databases/Web sites/collections place the Dutch 17th
century as part of the Baroque period, while others consider it part of
the Renaissance, making those terms more troublesome. So, while the term
"17th" will enable me to narrow within a search, I will not use the terms
"Renaissance" or "Baroque" except within certain directories and indexes
which require such a choice to drill down for the artists' name. At that
point, it's easiest to choose one, e.g., Baroque, take a quick look at
the dates, and, if necessary, go to the other. As to searching exact dates,
since the artist in my example — Pieter Withoos — is rather obscure and
the client requested information doesn't require it, I won't use the birth-death
dates — 1654-1693 — except for verification.
washes from the soul the dust of everyday life."
There are so many
new "facts" replacing old "facts" with the aid of technology and interdisciplinary
curiosity by researchers, that time considering disputed or intuitive connections
is well spent. Verified facts form the essential structure against which
to compare conflicting facts or information. For example, the famous painting
the "Mona Lisa" by Leonardo da Vinci — also known as Leonardo de ser Piero
da Vinci — is also known as "La Gioconda," "La Joconde," and "Mona Lisa
del Gioconda." These usually country-specific spellings are useful alternatives
for searching in databases not returning any hits on anglicized spellings.
A search on the "Mona Lisa" misses out on some great European art sites
and loads many unwanted retrievals (although I do love Nat King Cole, too).
can lead to confusion when there are different language versions of the
same item, such as the title of a painting by the 17th century Dutch artist,
Alida Withoos, "A Forest Floor Still Life with Various Flowers." The same
painting image can also carry the title, "Blumen in Einem Waldgrund." Given
that the online image is obviously the same, and even with a rudimentary
knowledge of German, one can easily verify a translation has occurred.
But which one is the original? Is one a translation provided at an auction?
A verification or clarification might be in order.
most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious."
a specific item can shift from industry to industry. In fields other than
art, a drawing and/or an inked watercolor painting might be regarded as
an illustration or simply a drawing. Then again, there are historical usages
of terms such that a watercolor and ink painting of today might once have
been termed a drawing as a result of the type of method and/or the purpose
of the artwork. A pen and ink study or charcoal cartoon of the 17th century
might be regarded today simply as a drawing or even as a painting. Aspects
of terms such as these can uncover hidden sources. However, an over-reliance
on specific terms can also lead to information — though sometimes fascinating
— that does not serve the client's needs.
can encompass varying nationalities, disciplines, and alternative descriptions
and provide additional depth to primary search terms. The selection of
languages as well as the terminology is part of structuring the query that
increasingly requires more time. Partly driven by the use of two or more
languages and partly by interdisciplinary searching, terms can make or
break a research project with too much complexity or not enough. For help,
try a good thesaurus directory such as the subject-arranged Web Thesaurus
Upon finding several
of Pieter Withoos' artwork titles in French, German, and English, I decided
to try a key term in those and Dutch language versions of search engines.
Using the German version, I retrieved a stunning new auction site in English
the Gabrius Auction databank [http://www.gabriusdatabank.com]
— with some images hidden from any English-language-only Web search engine.
will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it, we go nowhere."
increases the numbers of multi-lingual viewers for Internet sites. Responding
to this growth, many search engines such as Ditto, Google, AltaVista, and
Lycos are racing to improve searchable access to online images. Photo aggregators
and resellers of images, such as Corbis, have site-specific, easily searchable
image databases. But the odds aren't good for the basic Web search engines
if they have to handle approximately 1,346,966,000 searchable Web pages,
like Google does, and if each page has at least one graphic such as an
arrow or a "back" button. Current keyword searching for images in Google
results in nearly half that are not artwork images, but "gif" images —
Web page graphics such as bullets, back buttons, and the occasional logo
given a text tag for greater accessibility. Part of the difficulty lies
in using text to find images. Not only a language barrier, but more importantly,
a cultural barrier exists in deciding what an image primarily relates and
how that can be summed up in a keyword.
Visual art — graphic
and fine — is one of the purest forms of communication in that it transcends
verbal language barriers. Many times, it forms the only and the deepest
connection with the artists themselves. The artists' interpretations hold
intensely powerful and subtle views of history, styles, music, architecture,
wars, politics, love, pressures, joys, and beliefs of their time. Viewing
the image provides a lot of visual clues for alternative keywords as well
as the "scent of the hunt" for those inevitable moments when you have to
struggle to find anything in database after database.
In many image searches,
the artist's last name is the primary term to search on or find via an
index, e.g., "Withoos." The importance of the artist's name in any image
search dictates that several configurations be tried: the last name followed
by a comma and the first name, e.g., "Withoos, Pieter" or even "Withoos,
P.," as well as the modern first name then last name order, e.g., "Pieter
Withoos." If you can't locate the specific artwork image, then look at
similar works by the same artist, on the same subject if possible (e.g.,
landscapes, portraits, etc.), and in the same medium — to get a sense of
the artist's style. An outside possibility exists that the first name is
misspelled, e.g., "Peter" not "Pieter," and that approach too might be
worth a quick search.
teaches nothing, except the significance of life."
The more obscure the
artist or work you are searching, the more important it becomes to select
carefully good, interdisciplinary terms and to prioritize them. Several
museum and collection sites have searchable fields that include artwork
type. Outside of such scholarly sources, the use of terms such as "painting"
or "drawing" is usually far too general, with different meanings within
different sources. The nouns "drawing" and "painting" will bring too many
contemporary and other unusable retrievals as they are also verb forms
("He is drawing conclusions," "She is painting the town red").
Strictly as an
art query, your best approach is to focus upon the more unusual and prioritize
accordingly: name (if it's unusual as in the example "Withoos" rather than
"Smith"), then century (17th), then nationality (Dutch), then type of artwork
(study) or movement (such as Impressionism). In the example, the artwork
title of study indicates the picture might have been included in a book
or mentioned in botanical works, so a comprehensive search would also cover
botany and botany-related databases, as well as art-related databases.
Searching on the
specific artwork title subject, e.g., "study" and "gourds" or "drawing,"
"painting," "watercolour," "watercolor," will help retrieve a list of artwork
citations. The interdisciplinary search terms in the example are botanical
and botany-related such as "illustration" (as opposed to the art term "drawing"
or "painting") and "kalebas," "mergpompoenen," "cucurbit," and "gourd."
Using botanical terms, I find that Pieter Withoos is the "author" of a
book that consists of plant drawings and paintings. Due to the artist's
life dates, it is likely that the book production involved hand tinting,
which would greatly reduce the number of printed copies and any online
access to individual prints or plates.
amount of skillful invention can replace the essential element of imagination."
Due to the constantly
changing nature of the Web, there can be no guarantee of online access
to sources — even to those with subscriptions, and perhaps this is one
of the most profound differences in online accessibility versus printed
matter accessibility. Once a book is bought, it remains intact and accessible
until it's physically removed or destroyed; once a database subscription
is signed for, there are no guarantees that access will be there tomorrow
or even the next hour. Yes, most important content is sold to another company,
but subscribers don't always receive notification.
Ironic, but an
absolute must-have resource for doing online art searches is a book by
Lois Swan Jones, Art Information and the Internet: How to Find It, How
to Use It (Oryx Press, 1999, Phoenix, Arizona). It is an excellent,
highly organized resource, and the publisher provides a Web site where
you can find updates for the untold numbers of URLs in her extensive book.
Part of the difficulty
of art research stems from the awesome quantity and quality of art sources
online from art directories and indexes to museum collections and provenance
databases. It's such a delight to virtually "visit the Louvre" or the "Met,"
to "see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wild flower," as William
Blake wrote in his "Auguries of Innocence." Priceless too are the location
histories of each work taken by the Nazis that are now finding their way
back to the owners through searchable provenance and spoliation databases.
Just a word on
the giant subjects of provenance, provenience, and spoliation sources.
Provenance (or provenience — a rarely used derivative) is the result of
research to prove the past right and legal ownership and locations of an
artwork with the goal of establishing the value and authenticity of an
artwork or of restoring the artwork to the authentic owner and/or their
heirs. The latter form of provenance research is mandated by law in many
nations in efforts to rectify the billions of dollars' worth of artwork
looted from Jews by the Nazis in World War II, which was then illegally
"gifted" or sold to museums, collections, galleries, universities, libraries,
religious institutions, and individuals around the world. Spoliation, meaning
"the spoils of war," is a term used primarily in European art museum, collection,
or research databases, as an alternative to the terms "provenance" or "provenience."
Major museums such
as the Getty, the Met, the Frick, and so on have searchable provenance
databases at their Web sites. UNESCO has a project underway to post international
laws "governing the control of cultural property" for museums, collectors,
dealers, and customs officials at the Web site [http://www.Invaluable.com],
as well as international sources of information and links to databases.
The United States National Archives [http://www.nara.gov]
has information on provenance research and principles with special coverage
for the Holocaust era.
can put a surprising strain on a searcher's inventiveness. Licensed artwork
sources can extend from botanical books to stamps to dinner plates, as
well as traditional sources such as museums, galleries, and collections
in universities. One good way to assess critically the veracity of an online
art source is to consider what the source would risk if their information
on an artwork were incorrect.
Before the final
searches commence, the list of interdisciplinary sources needs to be prioritized
with the idea of going from the broadest to the narrowest. Due to a widely
disparate overlapping of online searchable fields and collection depths,
the more optimum general approach is to focus on the auction — sales catalog
sites, provenance sites, and image galleries. If the preliminary search
retrieves citations for major museums, galleries, or specialized collections,
these would qualify for the next tier of databases to search.
live in a beautiful and orderly world, not in a chaos without norms, even
though this is how it sometimes appears."
The filtering of search
retrievals may seem a very straightforward answer to one of the connection
questions such as, "Who owns this painting now?" If the owner has been
found, then the verification process is a quick finalization. For those
still unanswered questions, the process can be thought through again. Only
a miniscule percentage of the combined total artwork residing around the
world in libraries, universities, museums, galleries, and other collections
is available online in the collections of museums, libraries, and other
major owners. So the end of the search online may be a terrific start to
a search offline through an identified collection's curator or printed
—M. C. Escher
good are computers? They can only give you answers."
Art research is as
much a thinking and visual process as a textual process. Widely varying
online resources require a process structure for searching multilingual
interdisciplinary subjects where the most reliable information currently
appears. While there is still a huge backlog of museum image and collection
resources yet to be made available online at many art related sites, newer
invaluable tools of provenance and art auction databases have greatly enhanced
the online art search.
All the artist quotes used appear on http://www2.wcoil.com/~mdecker/quotes.htm.
Directories, Indexes, and Image Databases
The Artist Index
The Axis Database
Bubl Link: 700
Dutch Art Online
ECIT — Electronic
Compendium of Images and Text — The Piero Project
Voice of the
World Art Treasure
World Wide Arts
Virtual Library: Art History
Art auctions and
art as investment: see Files 9, 16, 148, 649, 47, 781 and the OneSearch
Art Index —
The Wilson Art Index
The Art Sales
2.4 million entries)
PROVENANCE SOURCES —
el Esclarecimiento de las Actividades del Nazismo en la Republica
The Bruno Kreisky
The Prime Minister's
Non-Restituted Works Looted 1943-1998
for Looted Art
Lost Art Internet
Commission for Art Works
Forum on Holocaust-Era Looted Cultural Assets
Art Loss Register
Assets: Research Institute Resources
Assets: Records and Research at the National Archives and Records Administration
Restitution Project (HARP)
County Museum of Art
Museum of Art, New York
Museum of Fine
Museum of Modern
Art, New York
the Documentation of Wartime Cultural Losses (The Documentation Project)
with the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets
List of Current Activities Regarding Holocaust-Era Assets
U.S. State Department,
Bureau of European Affairs Holocaust Issues
World War II
Resources at the National Gallery of Art
Colette Wallace is president of The Wallace Research Group [http://www.wallaceresearch.net].
address is firstname.lastname@example.org.