Historical Analysis

It is difficult to say that one form of analysis is more important than the other. I place a bigger emphasis on historical analysis merely because I am more interested in history than art. Historical analysis is important in understanding the greater context of a piece of art while formal analysis analyzes the artistic nature of the artwork itself. Therefore, a formal approach should be used by those primarily interested in the beauty and style of art while a historical approach should be utilized by those interested in the motivation of the artist and the political or social statements made by art.

Westermann describes how Pieter Saenredam created a radical new perspective in the drawing below: “Rather than constructing pictorial space as if seen by one fixed eye out-side the picture’s “window,” Saenredam’s perspective positions the beholder’s eye inside that space” (Westermann 75). This is a profound stylistic change that allows viewers to feel as if they themselves are actually in the building being depicted. To someone who finds meaning in the experience of viewing the art understanding this artistic device is crucial. I do find it interesting to learn how this vantage point is depicted, but I am more interested in learning about the events and historical information surrounding the building itself. I define meaning as the political and social history surrounding art and therefor focus on historical analysis.


Pieter Saendream Crossing, Nave, and West Window of the Church of St. Bavo in Haarlem, Seen from the Choir, 1635. Pen and ink, black chalk, and white and yellow heightening on blue paper, 21 x 15″. Gemeentearchief, Haarlem. 


4 thoughts on “Historical Analysis

  1. I like your honesty about where meaning lies for *you* (historical context) but also your openness to the value of other frameworks (aesthetic, stylistic, maybe theoretical?). It might be interesting to see how far you could push the latter–how important (and perhaps for historical reasons, in part?) was Saendream’s innovation in the way a painting looked? Where do you find value in the way a painting looks? (vs. what it may say about the period, person, painter, etc.)? one way of thinking about how the eye sees.


  2. Hi Aidan! I’m glad that you brought up Saenredam’s drawing of the church of St. Bavo — I was interested in this too. I too enjoy historical context, however, I am wondering if the formal analysis of artistic techniques becomes just as important when trying to preserve history through art? For example, Wetermann explains that Saenredam developed a new perspective in his paintings, which allows viewers to feel as though they are looking inside a building. This new technique of depicting buildings as they truly appear, offers viewers a greater understanding of building forms/architectural design. I think it’s important to understand the artistic style and how these pictures were created, in order to know how to replicate and improve upon these methods. This kind of supports your argument though that “a formal approach should be used by those primarily interested in the beauty and style of art”.

    Westermann’s discussion of maps reinforces the idea that different artistic techniques are important when considering the functions of art. Westermann explains, “a bird’s-eye painting of Amsterdam would give a sense of its innovative system of canals, but for a real estate transaction viewers would surely refer to more detailed plans, seen fully from above rather than from the oblique angle assumed by panoramic paintings” (77). I think this just goes on to show that formal analysis of artistic techniques can help viewers to better understand how to utilize, replicate, and understand art.


    1. Nice points here, Cheney, though I’d qualify the statement about “as they truly appear.” Saendream’s perspective doesn’t necessarily show the building “as it really was” but rather some replication of how the eye might be *conceived* of seeing it, whereas in fact the eye looks around and compiles a view in the mind. The same is true for any form of perspective: it is an approximation of the way the eye sees. But actually now that I look at the terms you used, perhaps you intended something more complex: “truly” implies factual; “appear” implies perception. So, “truly appear” is a kind of oxymoron that might get at this conundrum: We cannot paint what the eye actually sees. And the eye doesn’t see exactly what is there the way it is–it always sees from a perspective. So….. what to do with that?


  3. Hi Aidan! I think you’re right that there’s probably contexts where one method of analysis is better than the other—I suppose it really depends on what the viewers are thinking, and especially on what they think is most important. It’s probably not so black-and-white, and the “best” way to analyze is somewhere in the middle.


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