In August, The Art Newspaper reported that Donald Olson, an astrophysicist at Texas State University, had pinpointed the exact moment that Monet painted his work Impression: Sunrise to 13 November 1872. The report described this moment as the "birth of Impressionism." In today's episode, we discuss the painting and unravel some of the problems of this claim.
Check out the Slideshow below for images that we mention in the episode. Scroll down further for our Postscript (stuff that didn't make it into the episode), in which we discuss some of the issues surrounding the so-called "digital humanities." At the bottom of the page, you'll find Links to other sites for more information related to this story.
Sarah: Just to clarify, I certainly don’t want to give the impression that I’m not in favor of digital humanities projects and the use of technology and data analysis for our kind of research and for understanding art production and reception, but it’s about knowing which are the important questions to ask. Just from my experience writing my dissertation using Google Books and Gallica (from the French national library), having all these digital resources at my disposal made my research so much easier than it would have been ten years ago, and allowed me to ask certain questions about the material that I would not have been able to ask if I had had to spend all this time in France looking at physical books.
Tina: But I don’t think that digital resources and digital humanities are the same thing, which is why maybe your Google Books/Gallica example isn’t totally relevant. When I think of digital humanities, it’s more like putting every manuscript ever written by Shakespeare in a database, and then running a program to see how many times he used the word “tree,” and how many instances of the word tree were within five lines of the word “war,” in order to figure out if Shakespeare was connecting the concepts of nature and war. That’s what I think of when I think of digital humanities.
S: Right, and again just tying it back to my own work, one example of the digital humanities that I used a lot in my dissertation research was the London Gallery Project, where a group of scholars went in and digitally mapped the art galleries in nineteenth-century London so that you could see the neighborhoods where they were all popping up at different points, and have easy access to information like when a gallery was opened, who owned it, and what was being shown there, which was helpful for me when positioning my own research. I wouldn’t have had the time to create that sort of visual document for myself, and it allowed me to make observations that strengthened my argument. I certainly don’t want to suggest that digital humanities is ultimately not useful.
T: Me neither, I’m just saying that we haven’t necessarily figured out which questions it can help us answer that are going to be meaningful.
The Art Newspaper: "The Birth of Impressionism Calculated to the Nearest Minute"
NewScientist: "Nanoscale Monet is World's Tiniest Masterpiece"
The Creators Project: "An Intelligent Algorithm Made a Discovery that Slipped Past Art Historians for Years"
National Gallery of London Sheds New Light on First Modern Art Dealer and Impressionist Champion Paul Durand-Ruel