In recent years waves of fashionable subjects, theories, and “turns” of attention have swept over the work of historians, yet the enduring rock on which all historical research relies is evidence. It is often the case that useful materials are scarce, and endless ingenuity has been applied to fill the gaps—which is all the more reason to cherish those sets of easily accessible sources that are available. The essays that follow deal with one such set, which, considering its easy accessibility and the window it offers into the past, is insufficiently used: the evidence of the fine arts.

Studying images has not been a standard weapon in the historian’s armory. The exceptions, such as Jacob Burckhardt, have been applauded for their insights, but not much imitated. In recent decades, however, attitudes have begun to shift, and there has been increasing concern to include the creations of artists in the attempt to understand the society of a particular period. A notable example is a recent work that seeks to link two subjects that have long remained elusive and little studied: animals and individual identity in early modern times. This is a lavishly illustrated volume, and at one point, in order to document the absence of sunshine in the labyrinth at the Sun King’s Versailles, a picture of a hedge is used to show that its height cast the adjacent area in permanent shadow. In other words, without the image the argument could not have been made.1

This may be a tiny example, but it is indicative of an attention to the visual which has begun to infuse the writing of history. There is a long way to go, and some of the essays that follow suggest how limited the adjustment has been. Nevertheless, the very existence of these essays confirms the recognition that has been gained: that historians, too, have a stake in understanding the visual arts. We may not focus as much on issues of style or form, and our interests may diverge from those of the professional art historian. But there can be no question that images have become essential evidence in the exploration of the past.


The essay that gives this book its title opens the proceedings for two reasons: it touches on the history of taste, a subject that invites the attention of both disciplines; and it emphasizes how large are the questions that the response to art—even to a small drawing—can provoke. The book is then divided into eight specific topics, organized by subject matter and geographic areas. Here a few essays are joined by reviews of exhibitions and books—the majority of the pieces—that explore the relevance of the arts to the work of the historian. It is also worth noting that, although the contents were published during a span of over forty years, from 1973 to 2016—which accounts for the occasional minor repetitions—the steady increase in per annum listings may well reflect the growing interaction between the two disciplines.

Part 1 looks at the general issue of the advantages the historian gains by regarding art as essential evidence, and also at some of the problems. In addition to my first review, in the early 1970’s, of books that emphasized how useful the interaction could be, three specific examples are explored. The first is a study of the sugar trade that reveals the relevance of this perspective in economic and material history; the second serves the same purpose in the history of peace and war; and the third suggests the worlds that a single painting can open. To end the section two essays investigate the limits on this interaction between disciplines. The starting point is an attempt, by Peter Burke, to lay out ground rules for the use of images. Taking these seriously has consequences that are explored in an essay that questions easy assumptions about their impact. Here issues of meaning and response suggest how difficult it can be to illuminate history through art.

In Part 2 the focus is on a favorite entryway into the arts for the historian: the portrait. This is a standard prop for the biographer, and it has also served to fix in the mind the facial features of individuals, and the clothing and general appearance of the people of different periods and places. As will be clear from these reviews, however, it is not just obvious features of a person or an age that can be gleaned from portraits. When closely examined, they offer unique insights into larger cultural and social issues.

Another topic that requires the historian to grapple with the arts is patronage, especially when it leads a patron to assemble a collection. Why does this happen? What does it tell us about the collector or the times? These are some of the questions that are addressed in Part 3. Here we see what can be learned from one particular strand in the works that were bought by the British royal family over the centuries. We can learn, too, from the activities and heritage of individual monarchs, such as Charles I of England, the Emperor Rudolf II, and Philip IV of Spain. No less suggestive are interests in particular kinds of creativity, such as drawings and prints. And the tastes of a perceptive individual like Cassiano del Pozzo or Helen Clay Frick can tell us much about the outlook of an age. In all these cases, however, the revelations are the most telling when the art that is collected takes center stage.

Each of the final five parts deals with a particular geographic area within Europe: the German-speaking region, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, and Venice. In part, these essays explore what is distinctive about the work created in different places. This is a perennial historical question, closely linked to the many attempts to define what is particular to a given area: what holds its people together and gives them a recognizable identity. Even small, adjacent territories like Flanders and the Low Countries go their own ways, and it is revealing to see how they part company. Equally important, though, is the cross-cultural interaction, which is especially notable in the case of the Flemings, whose influence is visible in both Spain and Italy.

Throughout these essays, the constant drumbeat is the importance to the historian of understanding the images that were characteristic of a place or time. At the very least, they offer a layer of evidence without which the story of the past remains incomplete.

Theodore K. Rabb
September 2017
Princeton, NJ

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