RH102: How to Research Works of Art in Museums

RH 102: Professor Davida Pines

January 28-29, 2003 Updated: Feb ’05,  ’06, ’07, ’10, ’11, ’12


Self-Portrait, Aged 23 Rembrandt,  Dutch, 1629
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

How to Research Works of Art in the Fogg Art Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

When doing library research on a work of art you have seen in a museum, it is important to have in your notes basic information about the work: museum’s accession number, date museum acquired the work–(may be included in the accession number), artist, title of the work, date of work, medium.  Most of this information may be found on the label the museum placed near your art object.  If the museum has a database of the artworks in its collections, you can get most of the information online. Having this information will help you avoid some problems that may arise during your research as you look for information about the work of art in books and journal articles.  For example: Artists sometimes make more than one artwork with the same or similar title in the same or different mediums–oil, charcoal, marble, clay, etc. Monet is a good example! Titles of art objects may appear in different languages, e.g., an American museum may or may not translate into English the title of an object made, say, by a French artist. Degas’ Dancer is an example. Books and journals may retain the original French title or translate it into English. Museums add works of art to their collections and also remove (deaccession) them from their collections.  This may cause confusion when the object discussed in a publication seems to be the one you are researching but the book or article says it is in a different museum.  It is a good idea to begin your research by looking for the most recent publications of the museum where your work of art is located or in the museum’s artwork database if one is available. There you probably will find a “history of ownership” or provenance of the work of art.  You can find some examples of provenance research on the Boston Museum of Fine Arts page, “Art with a Past: Provenance Research at the MFA.”

I. Museum Publications.

Museums publish catalogs of their collections and exhibitions, and monographs (books) on artists, etc. These publications often provide a description of the work of art, its Provenance/Ownership History (for example, a work of art was made in 1899 but the museum did not acquire it until 1999:  where was it for those 100 years when it may have been published in many or several books and articles?), and a list of references to other publications. In the library catalog, the museum is considered an “ALT AUTHOR” even though the publication was written by a PERSONAL AUTHOR.  Search the library catalog by author=name of the museum. The work of art we want to research is Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait, 1629, in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.     The library has two books on Rembrandts in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum:  “Rembrandt creates Rembrandt” and “Rethinking Rembrandt.” To see if the library has other books on the general subject of Rembrandt and self-portraits, search the library catalog by Keyword=rembrandt* and self-portrait*. rembrandtcat Other Keyword searches in the library catalog: “isabella stewart gardner museum” and rembrandt “museum of fine arts” and boston and monet   (add “boston” because other cities have museums of fine arts!) “museum of fine arts” and boston and japanese “museum of fine arts” and boston and flemish “fogg art museum” and paintings “institute of contemporary art” and boston and exhibition*

II. Catalogues Raisonnes and Complete Works.

These catalogues publish all the works of an artist or all the works made in a particular period or located in a specific collection. The amount of information they provide varies. To find them in the library collection, search the library catalog by subject=rembrandt, and then scroll to the added subject headings, catalogs or catalogues raisonnes. To find other general books on Rembrandt,  search the library catalog by subject=rembrandt. If you want to see if other libraries have other books on Rembrandt, search Worldcat. You may request books from other libraries through Interlibrary Loan.

III. Periodicals (journals, serials, magazines).

To find articles in periodicals about Rembrandt’s self-portraits, use databases that index art periodicals by subject and keyword. Links to these databases are provided on the web page, Art and Architecture. You will not always be able to find articles just about your work of art, but you may be able to find general articles that include your work of art. Indexes sometimes include  a list of titles of artworks discussed in an article. The only way you can find out for certain is to get the articles and skim through them.   JSTOR, a full-text database that includes 190 art journals, is best used with Advanced Search, limiting your search to articles in the Art and Archaeology Collection.  You also can limit to words in the captions of the illustrations. Here is an example. jstormonet The following databases are online indexes to articles about art published in journals and/or chapters in book.  These indexes let you search by keyword, artist, etc.  These databases may contain the full texts of some of the articles indexed.  Click on the pdf or html link.  If the article is not in the database, click on the sfx button button to find out if the article is available online from one of our other ejournal providers. If the journal you want is not retrieved, double check our ejournal resources by clicking on the E-journals A-Z list. If the journal really is not available online, click on the library catalog link to find out if the journal and the year you want is available in print.  You will need its call number to find it in the library stacks. The results of your search will be displayed as a list of citations* to published articles. *Citation example (journal article): Chapman , H. P. “Expression, temperament and imagination in Rembrandt’s earliest self-portraits.” Art History v. 12 (June 1989) p. 158-75. Citation format (journal article): Author(s), title of article, journal title, volume number, issue number, date, page numbers. When looking for the actual article, you will need the journal’s volume number, issue number, date, and page numbers. *Citation example (book chapter)The Performance of the Abject: Jean Genet’s Ce qui est resté d’un Rembrandt and Pompes funèbres By: Jones, David; pp. 37-50 IN: Best, Victoria (ed.); Collier, Peter (ed.); Powerful Bodies: Performance in French Cultural Studies. Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang; 1999. 220 pp. Check our catalog for the book title that follows the word: IN.   refworksiconRefWorks As you find articles, you may want to keep track of them for later use in writing your paper and the paper’s bibliography (or works cited or references).  The bibliographic management system, refworksiconRefWorks, helps you do that.  Most databases have a direct export connection to refworksiconRefWorks; look for “export.”  If there is none, use a refworksiconRefWorkstemplate to add the citation. When you write your paper, you can use refworksiconRefWorks to add an abbreviated citation within your text and also to create a bibliography in the citation style your professor requests.   refworksmonet l. Art Full Text and Art Index Retrospective are databases that index art periodicals published since 1929. Use Advanced Search. artindexsearch artindexresults For articles that are not full text either in the database or in a remote database such as JSTOR. you will need to check the catalog to see if the library has the journal and year in which your article was published.   catalogrecord The library catalog provides the call number for the journal. (Please note the library may have the periodical, but not have the year you need. Check the line: LIB HAS:) Make sure you have a copy of your citation with you when you go to the library stacks to get the periodical. There will be many volumes with the same call number. You will need to know the year of the volume you need. It also helps to have the page numbers when you pull the journal off the shelf. 2. Bibliography of the History of Art index international art journals. Limit to English only. bhaex 3.  ARTbibliographies Modern 1974+ is a database indexing articles on works of art that were made from the late 1800’s to the present. It is worth trying if your artist is contemporary. abmex

The library is introducing a new product, called a “discovery and delivery service,” for searching for books and articles at the same time. Currently referred to as “Primo,” it is accessed from the search box on the library’s home page.  The search results page looks like this: primorembrandt You can export citations to refworksiconRefWorks clicking on the star by the citation which adds it to e-shelf (at the top of the screen) and from there to refworksiconRefWorks.

IV. Biography and Concepts or Themes

Grove Art Online (Oxford Art Online) has biographies of well-known artists. Contemporary artist biographies are being added. You usually do not need to select “biographies.” You can search the Encyclopedia of Aesthetics at the same time for concepts such as beauty, sublime, etc. .  BU new groveart

Note: Contains full-text entries from various encyclopedias and dictionaries.
Also try: Art History Research Guide: Biographical Sources These sources are primarily reference books in Mugar Memorial Library. See also the following: American Art: Biographical Sources Modern and Contemporary Art: Biographical Sources Photography: Biographical Sources

V. Internet Resources.

These are websites that provide links to either BU subscriptions or to free webpages. Many of the pages provide lists of links. Art History Research Guide with links to other art-related research guides. Finding Images on the Web Google Scholar and Google Books Harvard University: Museums Collections Online How to Research an Artwork (UC Berkeley) Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, Collection by Artist Internet Archive, online books published before 1923 Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Collection Evaluating Information Found on the Web (Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Online Collections Database Online Books Page, mainly pre-1923 books refworksiconRefWorks (software program for managing your citations and creating bibliographies) BU You can select whatever citation style your professor requests you to use. Citation Styles for Online Documents (Bedford/St. Martin’s Press) Research and Documentation Online (citing books, journal articles, etc.) Chicago-Style Citation Quick Guide (citing online and print books and journals)