Undergraduate Art History Research Project Uncovers Histories of Mystery Objects in the Blanton Collection

The course “Problems in Art Historical Research” was developed to train Art History majors in original research and critical consideration of how knowledge and archives are constructed and used. Original research—and object study in particular—is key to understanding visual art as a complex, active nexus of material and conceptual practices. Artworks are physical objects with histories of creation, reception, ownership, and display—facets of which can only be accessed with in-depth examination. For art historians, it necessitates seeing work up close and in-person. But how do you facilitate such work during a pandemic? 

The University of Texas at Austin is home to several of the world’s premier archival and museum collections, including an encyclopedic collection of prints and drawings in the Blanton Museum of Art’s permanent collection. The Blanton’s works on paper are available for individual viewing and study in the H-E-B Study Room. The Blanton’s Associate Curator of Prints & Drawings, Holly Borham, worked closely with Art History Assistant Professor Adele Nelson during the spring semester to give Nelson’s students access to cultivate skills in original research. Together, Borham and Nelson devised a final project assignment that asked students to examine “mystery objects” from the Leo Steinberg print collection. These objects, more accurately described as incompletely identified artworks, included unattributed or incompletely researched pieces. A major exhibition of prints from the Steinberg collection on view at the Blanton in Spring 2021, After Michelangelo, Past Picasso: Leo Steinberg’s Library of Prints, could only scratch the surface of the holdings in Steinberg’s sprawling collection, offering UT Art History majors a multitude of opportunities to study prints that still required additional research.  

“The Blanton Museum of Art’s pedagogical excellence rescued this semester for our art history majors,” said Nelson. “Followed by an introduction to archival research from archivists at the Benson Latin American Collection, curators at the Blanton instructed students in object study of printmaking. The Blanton and select museums across Texas for those students not based in Austin, specifically the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, McNay Art Museum, and Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, opened their works on paper study rooms to the students for first-hand study of artworks requiring more research in their collections.”

Students mined available research materials, published catalogues raisonne, purchase ledgers, and expertise of university faculty, alongside close examination of work under guidance from Borham and Curatorial Assistant Genevra Higginson, to piece together more information about their mystery objects. They completed their research with the knowledge that it would contribute to the museum’s object files cataloging all known information about each work. 

One student, Natalie Ponder, worked with a print documented as an anonymous 17th century Dutch Annunciation. Ponder conducted detailed historical investigation and visual analysis, and sought outside expertise from university art history scholars, which led her attribute the etching to Jan Pynas, a Dutch artist who spent several years in Italy. As is the case with much object study, Ponder’s research involved close examination of the work that highlighted stylistic clues to its origin,

The clouds from a Pynas etching in another collection closely resemble the clouds in the unknown Annunciation print at the Blanton in both style and the way they form around the angelic figures. In both etchings, the clouds snake and coil in a connected line as they progress down towards the bottom of the page. The clouds in both etchings are unique to other depictions of clouds in both Italian and Dutch sources, suggesting Pynas may be responsible for the Blanton print. Moreover, Italian portrayal of clouds in etchings are generally more compact and confined to certain areas, such as in The Annunciation by Carlo Maratti. Clouds in Dutch prints, not usually confined to one area, are often a series of individual clouds dispersed throughout the scene.

Each catalogue entry and cataloguing sheet attempts to answer the question of what the object is and illuminate its context, including everything from provenance (history of ownership) to proposed insurance value. Some students were able to make great strides in adding to the museum’s object file, but just as often they were stymied by a dearth of information, learning hard lessons in the accumulated, incremental nature of original research.

“In a year when our H-E-B Study Room was closed to class visits, it was a special pleasure to welcome these art history students to do research individually,” said Borham. “We discussed printmaking techniques, paper types, watermarks, collector's stamps, iconography, provenance, and valuations. Each object presented a different puzzle and I was delighted with how engaged each student became in the research process, as well as with their results. We will definitely be updating records in the museum's database with the discoveries these students made.”

The Spring 2021 course collaboration between the Blanton and the Department of Art and Art History highlights the supportive research environment, access to archival materials, and diverse collections available at The University of Texas at Austin. These resources are vital to scholarly inquiry at any level of expertise, but especially to undergraduate students being introduced to the field and trained in original research, analysis and critical thinking. 

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