When studying art history, we normally have two main veins we can use for research: the artist or the work itself. But what if you aren’t looking into a specific artist or art work? For my research, I’m typically looking at specific patrons and while they might have preferred one artist or another, there are always a few outliers.
Take Henry VIII. You can definitely find information about him in books about Hans Holbein. But Holbein painted A LOT of paintings and many of them have nothing to do with the English court. So, for patrons especially, sometimes it helps to approach it from a different angle.
Let’s stick with Henry for this conversation and specifically my work on his presentation of himself through clothing in his portraits. He includes over emphasized codpieces in many of his works to highlight his power, legitimacy, and virility. There is some written about the paintings themselves, but most of it isn’t centralized together in one resource. In this case, it was important to look at fashion history books for information about the clothing designs themselves and different trends that existed. Another vein was medical history because surprisingly art history books don’t discuss syphilis or the Renaissance treatments of it.
But for a well-known figure like Henry, history and political science sources proved to be more useful. Even if they don’t directly discuss the works of art, you’d be surprised how much of the information directly relates to the topic.
I recently finished The Private Lives of the Tudors by Tracy Borman which I was reading for personal interest, not research purposes. Although I wish I had read it when doing my research on the Tudors! It was a strictly historical book, and yes, a lot of the information wasn’t directly related, but books like this provide the broader context that is vital to understand when analyzing works of art.
For example, to understand Henry’s extreme concerns about legitimacy and his reasoning for all of his divorces, beheaded wives, and the creation of the Church of England, you have to understand what happened with the War of the Roses. Once you know that Henry’s father had won the War of the Roses and was thought of as “the usurper,” and that Henry’s brother died as a child making Henry the only male heir, it makes a lot more sense why he was so concerned about creating a dynasty.
And, because fashion was so important to the Tudors, it doesn’t just show in their portraits. While the book didn’t talk about their commissioned art works, it spent a lot of time talking about what they spent money on. For this period, we have to take information where we can get it and financial accounts, if they have survived, can be very telling about what people cared about. The Tudors, cared A LOT about fashion and how they looked and were perceived. Not only Henry VIII, but his father Henry VII, and his children Edward, Mary, and Elizabeth, all spent exorbitant sums on their wardrobes. While this doesn’t directly mention the portraits, we can infer that with such a passion for clothing that the Tudors all would have had input in what they wore for their portraits.
Sure, I know this is a very specific example, but for any of the budding art historians out there, remember that art historical resources don’t cover all of the information. That is why there is a need for new art historians. The information exists, it just needs to be interpreted in terms of the art.