Accessing History Through Art

For most historians, the archives are a hallowed space.  All those unique manuscripts, census documents, silver gelatin photographs, crumbling newspapers and scratched microfilm – who doesn’t love an archive?  But what if a historian could find historical evidence in an art museum?  Well, it turns out they can.

Certain artworks detail contemporaneous events.  Today, I present two examples.

Meiji Period Japan was a text-based society.  It boasted some of the highest literacy rates in the world, for men and women.  There are stories of even peasant girls copying borrowed encyclopedias, so that they could own their own copy. But even though the Japanese were highly literate, they also were incredibly artistic as well. While, of course, a scholar could read about contemporary views of the Sino-Japanese War (for example), what could they gain from studying popular, contemporary artwork that depicts the war? It’s a new avenue from which to draw information.

Mizuno Toshikata woodblock print
Mizuno Toshikata (1866-1908), [Sino-Japanese war], Meiji era (1894). Color woodblock triptych. Graphic Arts Collection GC153. Princeton University.
Black Hawk Ledger
Black Hawk (Lakota Sans Arc). “Plate No. 8” [ledger drawing]. Eugene and Clare Thaw Collection, New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, New York.
The plethora of Plains Indian cultures are a particularly interesting case.  I consider them to be literate as well, but they were not per se literate in ways that most Westerners perceive as “literate.” So, you won’t see as many books or ephemera with written language – as you would with Meiji Era Japanese culture. Instead, you can look to their artwork for a historical record.  The winter counts are beautiful examples of a historical narrative; the artist recorded what happened during the year.  Ledger drawings are my personal favorite.  Ledger drawings depict historical events, from the perspective of Native participants.  While many drawings were destroyed or censored (by both whites and Natives), these ledger drawings present one of the best looks into Plains Indians’ lives and history – from their own perspective. For the historian who can interpret the intricate details of each ledger drawing, the ledger drawings are a trove of information that you’re not as likely to find in an archive.

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