What We See
Photography changes how art history is taught
Dorothy Moss, lecturer in American Studies for Smith College’s “Smith at the Smithsonian,” describes how the spread of photographic reproductions of art works changed the field of art history, and public access to art, in the late 19th century.
From our mass-media perspective, this photograph of a dorm room, taken around 1900 and now housed in the Harvard University Archives seems familiar. The tradition of students wallpapering their rooms with posters, images from popular magazines, and photographs of paintings, is neither specific to the year 1900 nor to Harvard. But in preceding decades, photographic reproductions of art—in the form of collotypes, halftones, cyanotypes, and carbon photographs—were novelties. At that time, administrators of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and Public Library, and educators including Harvard’s president, Charles Eliot, were beginning to purchase and exhibit high-quality photographic reproductions of art works as a way to both teach and control high culture. Yet, even as photographic reproductions became available through local firms such as the Perry Picture Company, Boston’s more conservative critics and educators began to express concern, warning that the significance assigned to these reproductions on display in museums, colleges, and libraries might slip away if they began to appear in less controlled environments such as shop windows, were glued into the pages of personal scrapbooks, or decorated the rooms of homes whose occupants lacked formal art training or professional standards of judgment.
Undeterred, colleges not only continued to exhibit photographs in their galleries and libraries, but also sold or lent them to local residents and students for display in domestic settings. In this process, these photographic images functioned in much the same way that, today, a screensaver of a painting downloaded from a museum website becomes an expression of a user’s identity. Interestingly, in the act of displaying and distributing these photographs, colleges were also helping to spread the idea that art works, themselves, were commodities, not so different from other kinds of goods that consumers were encouraged to display as a way to communicate their own sense of identity.
At Harvard, one of Charles Eliot’s goals was to expose students to the world’s great thinkers as a way teaching culture. In 1873, he signed a contract with a local company to purchase inexpensive, photo-mechanical copies of the most popular engravings in Harvard collections, which he believed would be useful in cultivating public taste, if they were distributed widely. Eliot further sought to move Harvard away from conventional text-based learning towards a more hands-on, experimental approach. To that end, in 1874 he hired art historian Charles Eliot Norton who lectured on the world’s great art and encouraged art history students to study and use photographs to compare one art work to another.
When Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum opened in 1895, income from the William Hayes Fogg bequest was specifically devoted to purchasing reproductions of art and hundreds of images of European masterpieces were framed and on continual and rotating display in museum’s second story galleries. There and in the college’s art library, students studied and compared photographs of art works, fulfilling Eliot’s vision for the Museum to serve as an “art laboratory.” By the late 1890s photography had become an essential tool in a Harvard education, and other colleges soon followed Harvard’s model.
As photographs of the world’s art works entered college and university collections, art departments and art history courses became more rigorous. Photography helped build the “science” of connoisseurship by the end of the 19th century. As art historian Bernard Berenson, a major figure in establishing interest in and the market for “Old Master” paintings in America, noted, commercially produced photographs of art works encouraged a new level of scholarship. They authenticated students’ experiences of original works they had seen in person and, as importantly, gave them access to ones they had not. In addition, the reproductions allowed students to view art works in rapid succession, consider them in juxtaposition with each other, and to study their vivid details.
Students’ sense of familiarity with original art works carried over to their own living quarters where, one might argue, copy photographs sold or loaned to students did their most effective work. It was in these informal and personalized spaces that students could juxtapose and view photographs of art works side-by-side with popular prints and photographs of family and friends, purposing art works to fit their own needs and interests, whether serious or playful. In the privacy of their own living spaces, students were free to reinvent and even contradict the original meaning and significance of those art works, allowing for ironic juxtapositions and humorous dialogues between various forms of reproduced culture. In their malleability and multiplicity, the mass-produced, high-quality photographic reproductions of art allowed students to explore the multiple meanings and uses of imagery. It is a process that continues today as students learn about art through digital images selected by professors from museum websites and databases, and then manipulate and reorganize them for use on personal websites and social networking sites such as Facebook.
- Harry Durland's student room, 1900
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Harry Durland's student room, 1900
Harvard University Archives, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
- Page from student album, 1895, class records, Smith College Archives.
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Page from student album, 1895, class records, Smith College Archives.
A page from a student scrapbook, now in the Smith College archives, that shows photographs of a student performance of Thackery’s The Rose and the Ring in the living room of a student house. Enlarged and framed carbon details of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, likely placed in the student house by the administration, form a stage set for the students.
- Page from Mary Pratt Lewis notebook, 1895, class records, Smith College Archives.
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Page from Mary Pratt Lewis notebook, 1895, class records, Smith College Archives.
A student scrapbook image, suggesting a stage set or still life, features a banjo, an academic still-life painting that looks as if it were made in a studio art course, and a framed photograph of the Vatican’s Belvedere Antinous. The student’s act of photographing this particular reproductive photograph, which was highly charged in meaning at the time and widely reproduced, in an intimate corner of her room suggests how students turned their dorms into living albums.