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guidelines for identifying art objects

Students often ask me what I want from an i.d.  In the best of all possible
worlds, you would all be able to memorize the captions under pictures
completely and accurately.

Since we do not live in the best of all possible worlds, let me offer these pointers:

the basic format
  • artist (if known) - Who
  • title / iconography - What
  • date - When
  • patron (if it was made for a known person) - secondary Who
  • location (city, country -- not necessarily museum) - Where
  • medium - secondary What



    Not all of these factoids is available for each work of art I teach. For instance, most of the artists in my classes are anonymous.

    Most titles are nothing but descriptions of the 'contents' of the work of art, often with a place name attached.  Others are the 'iconography' or 'subject matter' of the painting.  Really, now, naming the parts will get you somewhere.

    This is the hardest thing for most people to learn and to learn to do well.  Let me point out that if you are totally date-disabled you could simply not bother to learn them and would lose only 7 points on the average Art 101 midterm or exam.  That means you would start with a possible high grade of a 93.  Not so bad.  On the other hand, if you don't know when anything was made how much do you know?

    Also, the higher level a course the more accurate your dates should be.  I hope this is obvious.

    The more important concept for me is relative order.  I care a lot about relative order, and if you date a later work before the culture even existed I worry about how much you have learned.  For instance, when people date Cave paintings to 500 B.C. I wonder.  When people date Egyptian art to 25,000 B.C. I hope they have added an extra zero by accident.   One good way to study is to try to create larger categories than the exact numbers of dates and assign things relatively similar in date to the same category.  For instance, you could get away with calling all Old Kingdom Egyptian works '2500 B.C.' and I wouldn't mind.  However, you should realize that you have made an approximation.  What kind of date would work for New Kingdom?  For early Classical Greek sculpture?  For late Classical Greek?  For early Roman imperial architecture?  See what I mean by categories?

    Start learning images by keeping them in relative order by culture.  Your books are usually organized that way.

    As a rule of thumb:

    within 10,000 years for cave painting
    in the right millennium for Egypt and Mesopotamia, and THEN within the right division (Old Kingdom, New Kingdom, etc.)
    within the right century for the Greeks and Romans, with the exception of the Acropolis.  Learn the dates.  You should be able to divide things into Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic and have convenient pigeon-hole dates for the periods.
    within the right century for the Middle Ages, and then the right half-century for Romanesque and Gothic monuments
    It seldom matters to me if you tell me what museum an object is in.  It is important to know what city buildings are in, and what building architectural decoration and sculpture is attached to (and hence, what city it is in).

    I seldom demand that people put the media into an i.d. list, but it is always a useful point to make in an essay.


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