Author Archives: Samantha Bedell

Photography: An Advancement and Misrepresentation


Photography is integral to today’s society, though the medium does not replicate reality. As a mere simulation of the real world, the mediation of photography, and its development across multiple interfaces, such as the physical and digital image, have shaped and evolved our system of meaning. Through photography and the replication of those images, the dialogic contexts across those interfaces help shape and interpret the world. When examining the role of photography in physical reproductions like the Mnemosyne Atlas, the Hockney Falco thesis, and exhibition catalogs, compared to digital platforms such as online collections, Google Arts and Culture, and photo manipulation, its clear that the public should be aware of both the pros and cons related to interpreting photographs.

Photography: An Advancement and Misrepresentation

The medium of photography has evolved exponentially since the 1820s to become a platform that creates a universal system of meaning that has revolutionized how we understand the world. Though photographs are merely a simulation of what has been viewed by the photographer, this interface is necessary to perceive and share reality (Irvine, “Conclusions”). Photography is a mediation of actuality and has completely changed the dialogic context of how we interpret art history through physical mediums or digital interfaces. As an interface, it would be nearly impossible to replicate the dialogic contexts photography provides (Irvine, “Artworks and Museums”). Though our system of meanings has mirrored the advancement of photography, people should be aware of photography’s misrepresentations in the perception of depth and dimension related to works of art, and ultimately, the limitations when experiencing the art.

The vehicle of photography is both a support and limitation when used to further the field of art history. Without this mediation, viewers wouldn’t necessarily perceive or recognize the connections between certain works of art that were completed at the same time, but in different locations (Mansfield 249). However, as a simulation of the real world, a photograph distorts the artwork’s composition including color, scale, and texture. With this mediation, care has to be taken to ensure that an artwork is never “reduced to reproductions” (Irvine, “Malraux” 3). Though with its limitations, reproductions of photographed artworks are necessary to research history.

Art history, as we recognize it today, developed in the early twentieth century. After the end of World War I, people were looking ahead to the future and seeking out modern, technological advances related to the art field. Photography, and its ability to be reproduced, was a natural fit for this desire (Kreinik). The reproducibility of photography enabled the artist, historian, or intellect to compare and contrast images from different times and places (Benjamin 252-253). This new ability in photography expedited the art history field, especially by Aby Warburg and David Hockney.

The Mnemosyne Atlas, was developed by Aby Warburg in 1924, but was unfinished before he died in 1929 (Johnson). This “Memory Atlas” was a collage of documents, images, and photographs that were all conceptually linked to one another (Irvine, “Artworks and Museums”). Warburg believed that creating dozens of panels filled with these images would bring about new ways of interpreting and mediating Western antiquity (Johnson). Ironically, the only surviving documentation of his Mnemosyne Atlas are photographs of his panels. Without photography, Warburg’s primitive web of information that connected his ideas would have been lost to history (Irvine, “Artworks and Museums”).

Photograph of Aby Warburg’s “Mnemosyne Atlas”

David Hockney, an art historian, used a similar method to Aby Warburg to illustrate his ideas and connections. Along with the knowledge provided from physicist Charles Falco, the two determined that painters, from as early as the Renaissance, had used optics to create their uncharacteristically accurate paintings. Hockney noted that painters like Caravaggio, van Eyck, and Vermeer didn’t suddenly learn how to portray realistic proportions; there had to be a tool (Boxer).

David Hockney’s panel comparing artwork from the 1300s-1600s

Hockney and Falco developed a thesis and determined that artists such as Caravaggio, van Eyck, and Vermeer likely used a variety of optical projections to create their artworks. Some of the suspected devices include concave mirrors and the camera obscura (Boxer). Hockney and Falco essentially proved that optical projection was indeed the driving force behind Vermeer’s Officer and Laughing Girl. In Officer and Laughing Girl, its obvious that the foreground figure is unusually large for a painting typical of the 1600s. Other compositions from the same period, like Jan Steen’s Beware of Luxury, often feature figures that are typically the same size, no matter the distance of the figures from one another (Steadman). In Vermeer’s painting, though, the foremost figure dwarves the girl sitting in the chair. The realistic size representation of this officer is seemingly normal for today’s audiences because of people’s familiarity with photographs. However, this nearly perfect optical representation was unheard of during the 17th century (Steadman). The Hockney Falco thesis certainly validates that some artists during the 1300s-1600s used optical projections to create their paintings. This astonishing recourse of art history would not have been possible without photography; the mediation was necessary to compare paintings across hundreds of years.

Johannes Vermeer, “Officer and Laughing Girl,” 1655-1660

Jan Steen, “Beware of Luxury,” 1663

As defined previously, a photograph is integral to our society’s system of meaning. In the instances of the Mnemosyne Atlas and the Hockney Falco thesis, a photograph’s intent broadens when it is presented alongside others; it no longer represents just the object in the photograph, rather it reflects the development of an artistic period. The photographs used in the Mnemosyne Atlas and the Hockney Falco thesis generated a system of meaning that was previously unidentified. Additionally, the interfaces created by connecting those photographs advances their dialogic relationships. Comparing and contrasting individual photographs is just one method to create a meaning system. Books, like museum catalogs, are also essential to the system of meaning.

When printed in an exhibition catalog, photographs garner an altered meaning; a designation as important and academic. The arrangement of photographs in an exhibition catalog inherently identifies these images as “real art” because of the association of a museum specifically choosing to present these artworks (Buren 189). A photo’s automatic identification as something that has meaning and value, in this context, gives the curators of those exhibitions, and accompanying catalogs, unspoken power that influences the public’s interpretation of the system of meaning (Buren 191).

Curators are, inadvertently, providing a biased interface to the system of meaning. As students of art history, curators have developed their professional expertise based on the thoughts and analyses of their predecessors. The identification of an artwork as culturally relevant or technically masterful was most likely given those identifiers decades, or even centuries, prior. Additionally, a curator’s inclusion or exclusion of an artwork within an exhibition, and deciding where an artwork should hang, alters the dialogic context of the display. From beginning to end, curators are controlling the narrative, and usually, there is little room for other voices to be heard (Buren 191). However, the physical exhibition is more limiting than the exhibition catalog.

Exhibition catalogs are typically more thorough in content and description than the display space. With the ability to delve into detail and compare outside images with those inside the exhibition, the catalog provides a lucrative experience to the reader. Though completely static in presentation compared to Aby Warburg and David Hockney’s collages, museum catalogs are another facet to the meaning system. The interface of a catalog allows a more in depth dive into a specific collection, theme, or artist, and expands upon the exhibition’s original interpretation. These experiences have also been made more accessible in recent years with some museums digitizing their catalogs and collections.

Digitizing exhibition or collection catalogs has gained momentum in the United States. The leading provider of these resources is the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Through MetPublications, the Met currently makes available fifty years worth of knowledge to the public, for free (“MetPublications”). This unprecedented access to cultural knowledge and history on a digital interface literally opens the Met’s doors to anyone who may not have access to the physical site. Though the digital formatting of a museum catalog is still static in its presentation of information, the digital interface creates a worldwide audience.

Exhibition catalogs, both the physical book and electronic book, are filled with information that is unable to be modified. Within those catalogs, the descriptions of photographed artworks are unable to be changed when new information arises, and cannot be personalized with information that is relevant to the viewer. However, many museums are unintentionally avoiding this problem of fixed information by digitizing their collections. Through this digital platform, the medium of photography can be used by the visitor to generate an unbiased interface free from a curator’s perspective.

Museums that create access to their collections via a digital interface are thoughtfully contributing to the system of meanings. Through the medium of photography, a person can view a variety of pieces within the same museum or collection, and others from different locations across the web. A person can venture and compare artwork from around the world at their own pace. That person can discover new connections and meanings between artworks, periods, and locations without having to leave their homes. Their own system of meanings can be free from the influence of curators or art historians, if they so choose. Yet, if the person decides to acknowledge and incorporate the object descriptions and metadata that is likely attached to the object in an online collection, then the experience and perspective of the curator or art historian is valuable (Buren 191).

While a museum’s online collection can provide the visitor with a plethora of images and information about a photographed artwork, the collection is not necessarily complete. Though a person can compare objects within the same museum, like the National Gallery of Art’s online collection database, a user is typically unable to compare the same artist in one museum’s collection with another. The user may have to open multiple webpages to accomplish this task. However, this frustrating lack of linked open data amongst museums is partially rectified by Google Arts and Culture.

Google Arts and Culture partners with cultural resources and museums across the world to capture high resolution images of artwork. Their partnerships allow a user on the Google Arts website to access photographs of artworks by the same artist without having to visit multiple museum websites (“Google Cultural Institute”). This condensing of information into one cache is an incredible feat in the art history field, and greatly increases the system of meaning for the user. The user is able to create their own system of meaning from their favorite images, and turn those images into their personal galleries (“Profile”). The role of the curator is not limited to those in the field, but is expanded to include anyone who has an interest. The sheer number of dialogic contexts that can be generated from this website is unmatched in ease and accessibility. Though the flexibility of Google Arts allows anyone to interpret their world in a unique way, the mediation of an artwork into a photograph, and then mediated once again into a digital reproduction, is not without repercussions. With this double re-mediation, care has to be taken to ensure that an object is never “reduced to reproductions” (Irvine, “Malraux” 3).

View of Google Arts and Culture

Accepting photography as reality is embedded in today’s society. However, photography merely portrays the ideology of realism; it is nothing more than a simulation of reality (Irvine, “Conclusions”). While collapsing the 3D world into a 2D space is certainly convenient, the medium is not without its stark limitations. When a photograph is taken of a painting, for example, and then mediated into a physical or digital format, details are inevitably lost (Irvine, “Malraux” 3).

A strong example of a photograph flattening a painting into a physical or digital format is Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night. This painting is widely known, and a person is quick to associate Starry Night with navy blue swirls contrasted with a golden moon’s corona. The quick brushstrokes of the composition whip the painting and draw the eye from the left to the right. When viewed through a 2D interface, like a print or online, the viewer is losing vast amounts of depth and texture that would be noticeable in person.

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York has Starry Night in its collection (“Vincent Van Gogh”). Only in person is a viewer actually able to grasp the dimension of van Gogh’s painting. The physical surface of this composition is laden with impasto. The undulating thickness throughout the canvas is exceptionally noticeable when the lights on the artwork hit the surface. This reflection of light provides a depth that is lost in a photographic or digital reproduction. This thickness is especially lost when viewing the crescent moon in the upper right corner. It is completely unknown to a viewer that only has access to a physical or digital reproduction of the work that this entire composition has a texture that captures audiences.

Vincent van Gogh, “Starry Night,” 1889

The experience of viewing Starry Night in person is both an individual and group event. In MoMA, groups of people crowd the painting and a dedicated security guard protects the painting from viewers. The mob mentality is to get a glimpse of the painting, and this energy radiates across the gallery. Sharing this experience with others heightens the excitement surrounding this painting, and an armchair view simply does not provide the same energy. A person who is only able to view van Gogh’s work from a remote location is missing more than just the vibrancy and texture of the composition; they’re missing the shared experience of wonder and homage to a great artist.

Unfortunately, the fallout of photography doesn’t end with flattening an image and losing the human experience. When one searches for Starry Night through Google, the results are a myriad of images that reference the painting. On first glance, its noticeable that the results vary in perspective, color, and crop. For a viewer that has not been personally exposed to the painting in MoMA, which search result simulates the painting the best?

The wide variety of search results demonstrates the rise of photo editing. Through editing tools such as Photoshop, a person is able to manipulate an image that distorts the original painting. Photo reproduction inevitably alters the painting’s material history and changes the reception of the original piece, and subsequently, Starry Night’s interpretation (Irvine, “Malraux” 3). Photo editing has become universal, and the tools to obscure history are accessible to nearly everyone. Though photo manipulation is inevitable when generating a reproduction of a painting and other classic mediums of art, photo manipulation doesn’t necessarily hamper the effect when a photograph is the intended medium (Irvine, “Artworks and Museums”).

Andreas Gursky is a widely known German photographer famous for his larger than life photographic prints. Some of his prints, such as Paris, Montparnasse measures 4.4 feet by nearly 10.5 feet and Rhine II measures 5.1 feet by just over 10 feet (Gursky “Paris, Montparnasse” and “Rhine II”). Gursky freely and openly uses photo manipulation to create these gigantic prints (Farago). His images are not merely composed of one photograph; both Paris, Montparnasse and Rhine II are stitched together from multiple photographs during post processing (Sooke).

Andreas Gurksy, “Paris, Montparnasse,” 1993

Andreas Gurksy, “Rhine II,” 1999

Gursky creates a new reality by stitching multiple photographs into one image (Sooke). The human eye is not capable of perceiving the grand architecture and landscapes that are in his photographs. The even clarity and perspective of each image is only possible through the medium of photography and digital post production (Nayeri). Additionally, in Rhine II, Gursky has made an effort to make the print more pleasing to the eye by color correcting, and most significantly, editing out a power station that disrupted the print (Nayeri). It is important to note that although people tend to view Gursky’s photographs as objective, the prints are anything but unbiased. Ralph Rugoff, the 2019 Venice Biennale Artistic Director, noted “Andreas is not a journalist doing reportage” (Nayeri). He continued to elaborate that photography “… which we, for official purposes like passports and school IDs, trust to be an accurate picture of the world, has always been something that can be lent to fiction as well as to fact” (Nayeri).

The medium of photography, though commonly referenced as a replication of reality, is nothing more than a simulation. The interfaces that are used to interpret the world have evolved alongside the development of photography. From grouping images in a collage or museum catalog to digital platforms such as online collections or Google Arts and Culture, the mediation of an artwork into a flat surface has been unavoidable. Though photographing a painting collapses depth, perception, and texture into a 2D space, the mediation is needed for the public to generate excitement and open the dialogue to share multiple perspectives. The difficulties associated with photography are less of a concern when an image is meant to be a photograph, but as seen in Gursky’s work, the viewer’s grasp on reality is warped. Photography as a medium, inclusive of both positive and negative aspects, across all of its iterations and interfaces, is absolutely necessary to the dialogic context of how the world is interpreted.


Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Era of Its Technological Reproducibility. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003.

Bolter, Jay David, and Richard Grusin. “Introduction: The Double Logic of Remediation .” Remediation: Understanding New Media, MIT Press, 2000, pp. 3–33.

Boxer, Sarah. “Paintings Too Perfect? The Great Optics Debate.” The New York Times, 4 Dec. 2001.,

Buren, Daniel, and Richard Hertz. “Function of the Museum.” Theories of Contemporary Art, 2nd ed., Prentice Hall, 1985, pp. 189–192.

Farago, Jason. “Andreas Gursky: The Bigger the Better?” Culture, BBC, 6 Nov. 2015,

“Google Cultural Institute.” Google Cultural Institute , Google,

Gursky, Andreas. Paris, Montparnasse. 1993, Tate, United Kingdom .

Gursky, Andreas. Rhine II. 1993, Tate, United Kingdom .

Irvine, Martin. “Artworks and Museums as Interfaces: Metamedia Interfaces from Velazquez to the Google Art Project.” Art and Media Interfaced. 21 Mar. 2019, Washington, DC.

Irvine, Martin. “Conclusions and Final Essay Projects.” Art and Media Interfaced. 25 Apr. 2019, Washington, DC.

Irvine, Martin. “Malraux and the Musée Imaginaire: Interfaces for Art History: Photographic Reproductions and Mediating Institutions.” 

Johnson, Christopher. “About the Mnemosyne Atlas | Mnemosyne.” Mnemosyne, Accessed 3 May 2019.

Kreinik, Juliana. “An Introduction to Photography in the Early 20th Century.” Khan Academy, Accessed 3 May 2019.

Mansfield, Elizabeth. “Art History and Its Institutions: The Nineteenth Century.” 1st ed., Routledge, 2005. Crossref, doi:10.4324/9780203995099.

 “MetPublications.” The Met, The Metropolitan Museum of Art,

Nayeri, Farah. “Andreas Gursky Is Taking Photos of Things That Do Not Exist.” The New York Times, 29 Jan. 2018,

“Profile.” Google Arts and Culture , Google,

Sooke, Alastair. “The Stunning Photographs That Are Like Paintings.” Culture, BBC, 18 Aug. 2017,

Steadman, Philip. “BBC – History – British History in Depth: Vermeer and the Camera Obscura.” Vermeer and the Camera Obscura, 17 Feb. 2011,

“Vincent Van Gogh.” Art and Artists, MoMA,

Priority, not Privilege

Communities and cultures often create interpretations of artworks from art history professionals. When in the museum setting, curators are the individuals that decide which exhibitions come to life, which artworks are included, and where to hang those works on the walls. Each of these decisions influences how the public views and interprets art, knowingly or unknowingly. The interface that is generated by simply having an exhibition in a museum automatically labels those artworks as “real” art. Additionally, excluding artworks from an exhibition changes the exhibition’s interface without the public’s knowledge. Lastly, deciding where to hang the artwork creates an interface, a story that the public has no control over. From beginning to end, curators are controlling the narrative, and usually, there is little room for other voices to be heard. 

Alternatively, digital interfaces, like Google Arts and Culture, remove the limitations of a physical exhibition in a museum or gallery. For example, a person is able to personally sort the artworks on Arts and Culture by period, color, artist, medium, etc. This freedom is impossible in a museum. A person literally has the ability to look at and compare artwork from around the globe in a matter of seconds. However, there are limitations to this interface, too. The viewer loses scale, depth, and the texture of the artwork. While there are physical limitations from translating the 3D world to a 2D interface, the benefits certainly are greater. A person is able to discover meanings on their own accord, without the hinderance of traveling to a particular museum. Those same meanings can be with, or without, the influence of an art history professional (if the person chooses to read the description of the piece). Inaccessibility to the physical artwork does not limit a person’s ability to generate their own opinions, meanings, or interfaces. Art and artifacts that are in museums belong to the people. Museum professionals are simply stewards of the collection, and we’re finally headed into a time that views remote accessibility to objects as a priority, and not a privilege. 


The artworks in the Hirshhorn take on a whole new meaning because of their location, or in some instances site-specific locations, within the Museum. The dialogue of the artwork in the museum space acknowledges that these artworks are art, not merely something you’d find in a mall. The Museum itself provides some of the meaning for the art. This symbolic space is especially necessary for works like Mark Bradford’s Pickett’s Charge. Referencing our visit, the Hirshhorn is a container for art. With this characterization, it has influenced how we perceive these artworks.

Pickett’s Charge takes on new meaning when placed in the Hirshhorn and in the city of Washington, DC. Discussing racial inequality in the States is a key component of this panoramic work. Installing this piece in America’s Capitol connects history back to present day, and brings time full circle, much like the shape of the Hirshhorn. Since the Horn is circular, there is no one correct way to experience the installation, and no one way an individual feels the effects of racial bias. Additionally, with entrances and exits to different experiences in the Horn, those sites interface with Bradford’s piece.

One of those exits/entrances is to the panoramic view of the National Mall and historical buildings. Viewing the Mall, and referencing back to Bradford’s installation, reminds the viewer how far America has come, but how far we have left to go to truly recognize everyone as equals. We don’t think the placement of Pickett’s Charge was a coincidence. The curators could have placed this installation on the second floor, where Sean Scully’s installation used to hang, but there are no windows directly facing outdoors. This dialogue between the Hirshhorn, Pickett’s Charge, and the National Mall was a conscious decision made by the Museum, and we noticed.

Samantha Bedell and Andrea Xu

Mediation is Necessary

As a past student of art history, I’ve spent countless hours staring at projectors, looking at textbooks, and my own computer screen to complete research. I cannot fathom completing this research without the aids of photographic reproductions. During undergrad, the students in the art history track were encouraged to reference the actual artwork when possible. The reasoning is obvious, but the professors always commented that photographs are lackluster representations of what we were studying; that a photo distorts color, scale, surface textures, lighting, etc. Looking back, I find the perspectives of the professors to be ironic (Mansfield 252). We were told to not solely rely on photographic representations of an object, but that is the only format that was available. 

Photography is the rise and limitation of the art history field. Without this mediation, the world wouldn’t know the connections between certain works of art or the differences in technique for artworks completed during the same periods, but in different locations (Mansfield 249). Personally, I wouldn’t have been able to complete my research effectively last semester if I had to keep returning to the National Gallery of Art and the Hirshhorn to look at the artworks I was analyzing. However, photos provide a dissociative context of the object or artifact. With this mediation, care has to be taken to ensure that an object is never “reduced to reproductions” (Irvine 3).

I have found that many museums are thoughtful to prevent object reproductions from losing their context. The Smithsonian Museums, for example, are undergoing a mass digitization process at the moment. Currently, the smallest museums have their entire collections online and available for visitor use, complete with metadata, tags, and tombstone information. Digitization of objects has allowed our cultures to be presented in frameworks we couldn’t have imagined before. New interfaces and connections are able to be discovered, all because of photography.

“While previously mistress (as in the earlier personal and often unacknowledged use of photographs for research), photography became proper wife and mother of a discipline” (Mansfield 249).”



Mansfield, Elizabeth. Art History and Its Institutions: The Nineteenth Century. 1st ed., Routledge, 2005. Crossref, doi:10.4324/9780203995099.

Irvine, Martin. Malraux and the Musée Imaginaire: Interfaces for Art History: Photographic Reproductions and Mediating Institutions. 

Vermeer and Chevalier

The science behind translating the 3D world to a 2D representation has been around for hundreds of years. Since the time of Aristotle (384-322 BC), it has been known that when light enters a dark room through a pinhole, the world is projected on the opposite wall, though inverted (Buckingham 6). Since light is known to travel in a straight line, the rays from above that enter the pinhole are observed on the bottom of the projection (Baldwin). Hundreds of years later, Renaissance artists would attach lenses and mirrors to the pinhole to focus the projection, and the camera obscura was born (Buckingham 6). 

Vermeer (1632-75) is widely believed to have utilized the camera obscura. His paintings are so accurate, that many believe there is simply no other explanation. During his time, Vermeer would have used the camera obscura in a very similar way as Aristotle. However, instead of viewing eclipses, Vermeer would have traced the projected image for his projects (Buckingham 6). More specifically, Vermeer would have learned how to manipulate the 3D world using mirrors and lenses onto a 2D surface to create the “optical” appearance in his paintings (Irvine).

Image result for vermeer officer and laughing girl


For Chevalier’s daguerrotype in 1842, the same basic idea of the camera obscure was used. Instead of a dark room, he would have utilized a portable camera obscura with a sliding rear box and a copper plate coated with silver. The plate would be treated with chemical vapors to make the surface light sensitive before exposure (Buckingham 8, 9). The sensitive plate would be placed in the back of the portable camera, and the sliding door would allow light to enter. After the exposure was finished, the plate would be exposed to mercury to develop the image, and fixed with a salt solution to ensure the plate is no longer light sensitive (9). The resulting image is also backwards, because of the same reason mentioned previously (Baldwin). 

Parisian panorama, c 1842. : News Photo


Baldwin, Gordon, and Martin C. Jürgens. Looking at Photographs: a Guide to Technical Terms. J. Paul Getty Museum, 2009.

Buckingham, Alan. Photography. Dorling Kindersley, 2004.

Martin Irvine, “Introduction to Photography and the Optical Image“

Impressionism and Post-Impressionism

Renoir and van Gogh, though both modern artists, are typically characterized as, respectively, impressionist and post-impressionist painters. The clear differences in technique, color, and overall composition between Renoir’s Pont Neuf (1872), Paris and Oarsmen at Chatou (1879) and van Gogh’s Roses (1890) and Green Wheat Fields, Auvers (1890) are evident on first glance, and represent the stark differences between the two movements. 

Impressionism and post-impressionism are reactions from dialogic situations of the art periods that preceded them (Irvine, 1). Impressionism begins from the rejection of academic works; paintings that featured idealized figures and a balanced composition (Strickland, 96). Impressionists, instead, sought to represent the fleeting moment, and Renoir found his inspiration from cafes and outdoor scenes, as seen in Pont Neuf (1872), Paris and Oarsmen at Chatou (1879) (Strickland, 96-97). Renoir’s dappled brushstrokes and use of depth of field contrast greatly to the post-impressionists, more specifically, van Gogh. Van Gogh and some his fellow post-impressionists found inspiration from the rejection of the previously mentioned fleeting moment. Instead of portraying a moment in time, post-impressionists aimed to introduce more emotive brushstrokes and a flatted composition (Strickland, 112). This gestural handiwork, and reduced depth of field, are clear in van Gogh’s Roses (1890) and Green Wheat Fields, Auvers (1890). 

Its interesting to think about the Artworld’s involvement in the outcomes of impressionism and post-impressionism. In 1874, Renoir, Monet, Degas, and others organized the first “impressionist” exhibition. However, the term hadn’t been coined yet. The term came from the title of one of Monet’s exhibited works, Impression, and a critic of the show had used the term ironically. From then on, the term “impressionism” gained momentum and labeled the movement (“How the Impressionists”).

For the post-impressionists, specifically van Gogh, he never saw success during his lifetime. While his brother supported his career, its clear that the support was one of devotion to family rather than to talent. Van Gogh’s paintings are some of the most recognizable, yet his fame came posthumously when his nephew, and namesake, opened a museum for his paintings. Had the Artworld recognized his talent, and not simply his mental illness, theres no telling where van Gogh’s successes could have ended.

Its fascinating to me how a few people’s opinions can influence art history.

“How the Impressionists Got Their Name.” Khan Academy, Accessed 28 Feb. 2019.

Irvine, Professor Martin. Introduction to Modern Art and Modernism: Framework for Case Studies at the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. p. 4.

Strickland, Carol, and John Boswell. The Annotated Mona Lisa: a Crash Course in Art History from Prehistoric to the Present. Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2017.


  1. Since semiotics involves no foundational theoretical assumptions, why do museums typically interpret an artwork in one way? Shouldn’t there be multiple? Is there a way to interpret an artwork many ways without personal preferences clouding the system of meaning? As I mentioned in a previous post, curators have unintentional biases. Isn’t that a personal preference, even if unintended?
  2. How does language/word choice influence a person’s interpretation of an artwork? What about a translation? Does font choice have influence? Does comic sans transform the information from one of reliability to one of discredit?
  3. What interpretations from the past influence an interpretation today? What new information influences the system of meaning? (Chuck Close and presidential portrait)
  4. Can sign and symbol be used interchangeably? Can “semiotics” and “system of of meaning” be used interchangeably?
  5. Its interesting how a artist’s name can evoke a system of meaning, like “van Gogh” being characterized as an index or an icon. I never considered this association.

Great Success is Built on Failure

Group: Samantha Bedell and Andrea Xu

  • House of Representatives 1822
    • Metapainting with portraits
    • Unusual the figures are not making eye contact with one another, instead they’re looking at the viewer. This gesture is similar to the other portraits in the gallery space
    • Uses two types of imitation in the painting, mechanical and intellectual
  • Created Gallery of the Louvre painting nearly ten years later in 1831
    • Metapainting, instead with paintings
    • More technologically advanced than HOR, the camera obscura and inspiration of the telegraph are clearly evident. The telegraph is meant to spread knowledge, and this painting is serving as the interface to cultural knowledge
  • Financial failure of both paintings lead him to abandon the arts, and pursue his scientific endeavors, like the telegraph, and eventually bringing daguerrotypes to the US
  • Ironic that HOR has gained so much recognition and popularity today, when he was unable to sell the painting in his lifetime. His inability to sell the work lead the way to his other scientific endeavors

How Something Acquires Meaning and Value

Walking through the Phillips Collection, Professor Irvine asked in passing “how something acquires meaning and value.” That night, my mind focused on the question and I came to the obvious realization that curatorial departments function on the groundwork laid from their predecessors. If someone deemed a cultural artifact important, then that distinction is passed on. How an art or artifact acquires meaning and value was established decades or centuries ago. Curators are, inadvertently, providing a biased interface to the system of meaning. In addition, Daniel Buren wrote: “The museum gives a sales value to what it exhibits, has privileged/selected.” The bias from curators is perpetuated simply by the artwork being displayed in a gallery or museum. 

With this sequence of events in mind, I began thinking of the history and acquisition of Luncheon of the Boating Party by Duncan Phillips. Critics had declared Luncheon of the Boating Party to be of cultural significance, and an incredible example of French painting. Had these distinctions not been made apparent to Mr. Phillips, he would not have acquired this Renoir, or had such revere for the work.

To go back even further in these sequence of events, I think of the rise of the impressionist movement in the 1860s. This movement was developed in response to the salons of the period only advocating for paintings with incredible detail. Professor Irvine wrote in The Institutional Theory of Art and the Artworld “…[The Artworld] continually works to redefine and reposition the cultural category of Art, which must be relearned and updated by access to the flow of knowledge, assumptions, information, and beliefs within the Artworld network.” During the late nineteenth century, the idea of acceptable art was realigned to include impressionism, which directly affected the works produced by Renoir. Renoir being acknowledged as a great artist affected Mr. Phillips decision to purchase Luncheon of the Boating Party. In this particular instance, the interface, meaning, and value of Luncheon of the Boating Party was developed nearly 150 years ago. 

Even though the typical visitor to the Phillips will spend under ten seconds looking at the paintings in the collection, as cliche as it sounds, I wont view many artworks the same way again. 

Martin Irvine, The Insitutional Theory of Art and the Artworld, Georgetown University CCT.

Daniel Buren, “Function of the Museum.” In Theories of Contemporary Art, edited by Richard Hertz, 2nd ed., 189–92. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1985.