Recently one of our readers asked me to comment on ways one can research, not just a work’s value, but information on the life of a particular artist. I know that this is a daunting task for many people and can take up a great deal of time, but do not give up – if determined, you will likely find something about the artist in question. I will make one caveat – if the works of a specific artist fall into what dealers and scholars classify as ‘decorative art’, a polite way of stating that the artist did not, or will not, have any historical significance, then you may find that it is almost impossible to find information.
Those of you who have been reading my newsletters for a period of time know how much I stress the need to do research. Research is one of the most important tools in determining whether or not you are buying the right painting at the right price and with a little legwork, this is often easily achieved. However, researching the life of an artist is not always an easy thing to accomplish. Today, there is a fair bit of accessible information about the ‘household name’ artists --- Rembrandt, Vermeer, Monet, Renoir, Picasso, Munch, Pollock, Warhol, and Hockney to name just a few. But what about all the other important artists who were/are painting at the same time as the ‘household names’ -- how does one go about finding information about them, especially when there is often very little available in contemporary writings?
We all know that over the years many artists and their work have fallen out of favor, so if you are trying to find out about an artist who lived decades, or even centuries, ago you may need to search through books and articles that were written during the time the artist was alive. While this may sound very difficult, and sometimes it is, one can easily begin their search by visiting a major public library (which can be found in most of the major cities) or, if lucky, the search can start on the Internet.
While the Internet is a great resource for finding information, it still has a long way to go, and while there is a wealth of information pertaining to art history posted, there is still a large percentage that is not available. Today, more and more historical information is showing up on art web sites and many institutions – especially universities - are scanning old documents/books and allowing the general public access to them. A great example of this Cornell University Library’s and University of Michigan’s collaborative effort titled Making of America (MOA). As stated on their sites, this virtual archive offers a digital library of primary sources in American social history from the antebellum period through reconstruction. The collection is particularly strong in the subject areas of education, psychology, American history, sociology, religion, and science and technology. This site provides access to 267 monograph volumes and over 100,000 journal articles with 19th century imprints. If you would like to find these sites, just search the Internet using the keywords ‘Making of America’. After reaching either site, use their search function and type in the name of an American artist from the period – you will be surprised at the information that pops up. Then try typing in the names of some of the European artists from the period and if they appeared in an article in one of the archived texts, not only will a result pop up, but a link to the page on which it is featured will also be listed.
Remember to also perform a general Internet search for the artist in question. Type in the name of the artist on different search engines and see what comes up. The first page or two will list what the search engine feels are the most appropriate results, but do not stop there. Scroll through pages 3,4,5,6,7,8,9, etc. -- you will be amazed at what information may be buried 8 pages deep! Then conduct additional general searches using different variations of the artist’s name – e.g. Corot, J. Corot, J.B.Corot, Jean Corot, etc. Next, try typing in names of people and locations that have a particular link to the artist in question – you can search on those words alone, or create a detailed search that includes the specific artist’s name and maybe the town, year or city in which they were born or lived. After that, try visiting museum sites – especially those whose collections contain works by either the specific artist, or other related artists from the same period.
Another often overlooked avenue is antique book seller sites which are filled with detailed information about specific books from different periods. Visit one of these sites: bookspot.com, abebooks.com, or bookfinder.com and begin your search by typing in the name of the artist in the ‘keyword’ box. After performing this search, then try typing in the names of artists who, or words that, relate to the specific artist – e.g. if the artist exhibited at the Paris Salon, then type in ‘Paris Salon’ – and see what surfaces. If a list of books appears please be sure to not only read each description carefully, as they often contain names of artists, patrons, or exhibitions that appear in the text, but note the name of the author and publisher; then perform another search using some of this information. It is not unusual to find that writers and publishers often produced numerous books on the same or similar topics.
These searches will frequently uncover several available copies of the same book, some of which can be purchased for reasonable prices. If you are lucky enough to find a book or two on the artist and/or period in question I recommend purchasing a copy. Once it/they arrive, check the author’s notes and bibliography … these often include the names of publishers and authors of related articles or books that may have specific relevance to your research. Create a list of this information and then revisit the internet book sites or a local library to see if you can find them – remember that there is nothing wrong with starting your own little library.
Never forget that the Internet is an ever changing environment and information is constantly being added -- so just because you searched on a Monday for something, does not mean that on Friday the same search will yield the same results. Keep a list of your searches and resubmit them every few weeks – new information is bound to show up.
Trying to compile information on a long forgotten artist can, and most likely will, be a difficult one. However, with a little persistence and luck you are bound to find something. It is advisable to create a file for this information so that your research can be passed on to those who may receive the work/works in question at some point in the future. This should also serve as a lesson to those individuals who are currently buying works by contemporary artists. It is important to compile as much information as possible while the artist is still living. Be sure to obtain detailed biographies, any catalogues featuring their work, listing of museum shows in which they participated, names of associations they are members of and any other scraps of information you may be able to uncover … future generations are bound to find this information very useful.
A Few Books to Get You Started
Here is a short list of books that relate to 19th century art to get you started:
If copies of these books are, or become, available, please read the descriptions very carefully and ask the seller questions about their condition. It is important to stay away from books that have serious issues, e.g. extensive foxing, musty odors, loose covers, or missing pages – many times the plates (images) were removed and sold as prints. Also, make sure that you are buying the entire publication since some books were produced in a series of volumes. Finally, please check the publication dates since many of these books were not only revised over the years, but some have been recently reprinted.
Howard L. Rehs
© Rehs Galleries, Inc., N.Y.C. – September 2004
Gallery Updates: Please remember that the gallery will be closed from August 27 through September 6. For the balance of September, the gallery’s hours will be Monday – Thursday from 10:00am – 5:30pm and all other times by appointment.
Virtual Exhibitions: Our summer biography upgrade is coming to a close. New bios on Debat-Ponsan, Didier, Beraud, Alma-Tadema, Galien Laloue and Sally Swatland have been added this month. We will continue our bio upgrade throughout the year, but at a slightly slower pace.
Next Month: I will discuss multiple originals – not prints, but subjects or images an artist repeats, in oil, acrylic or watercolor, a number of times during his/her career.