Atlantic History Art and Artists
by
Elizabeth Mansfield, Emily Hagen
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 June 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0338

Introduction

The conceptual framework of Atlantic history calls for a nuanced understanding of the designations “art” and “artist.” As self-evident as these terms might seem, they are in fact dynamic categories whose meanings have shifted—and continue to shift—in response to historical circumstances. Awareness of the historiography of these terms helps to clarify their past use and current meanings in relation to Atlantic history. Abiding within the terms art and artist are associations with Eurocentric concepts like originality, masterpiece, and genius. This is no surprise. The study of art as a distinct field of history emerged in Europe in the 18th century, and the resulting discipline of art history encoded Enlightenment assumptions regarding the superiority of certain social institutions, cultural forms, and kinds of knowledge. As a category of cultural artifact, art was ascribed a primarily aesthetic function that could be appreciated by all viewers, regardless of cultural origin. The problem with this understanding of art was its internal contradiction: to exist, “art” depends simultaneously on highly subjective judgments about aesthetic merit and on claims of universality. Historically, reliance on this understanding of art excluded the visual and material culture of non-Europeans, including indigenous peoples, from art historical valuation. Constraints imposed by the term “artist” were similar. Conventionally applied to individuals engaged in the deliberate production of objects recognized for their primarily aesthetic value, the category “artist” was closed to those working outside a specifically Western and modern cultural economy. Consideration of art and artists within the context of Atlantic history has provided an opportunity to re-examine these categories. In the early 21st century, most scholars of Atlantic history use the terms art and artist inclusively, without implying aesthetic judgment or intent. Those seeking to distance themselves further from historical prejudices may rely instead on such terms as “visual culture” and “maker” in place of “art” and “artist.” Rather than dispensing with the terms art and artist, this article proceeds from the belief that these concepts retain historiographic usefulness. Strangeness is an inevitable part of cultural encounter, and so is commensurability. To highlight the importance of interconnectedness for the study of art and artists in Atlantic history, this article is organized around networks of cultural exchange, encounter, and exploitation.

Textbooks

Study of the visual culture associated with Atlantic history is still in the process of entering university curricula, and a textbook that addresses art and architecture of the Atlantic world has not yet appeared. There are, however, a number of recently published or freshly revised art history textbooks and general overviews that address specific geographies, periods, or styles relevant to the art and architecture of the Atlantic that can answer the need in part, including Alcalá and Brown 2014, Bindman and Gates 2010–2012, Donahue-Wallace 2008, Solkin 2015, and Westermann 2007. Just as useful is a textbook devoted to material culture, Kirkham and Weber 2013, which provides an introduction to the arts of design and the decorative arts globally. Instructors and students may also make excellent use of the open-access, peer-reviewed textbook, Smarthistory. Although not designed specifically for study of the Atlantic world, Smarthistory is sufficiently comprehensive to allow instructors or students to create a custom online textbook. Another useful online source—though not designed as a textbook—is the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Organized by time, geography, and themes, the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History provides essays written by experts vetted by the Metropolitan Museum and links to high-resolution images of relevant works of art and architecture.

  • Alcalá, Luisa Elena, and Jonathan Brown. Painting in Latin America, 1550–1820: From Conquest to Independence. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014.

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    Synthesizes the diverse histories of pictorial production in colonial Latin America into a coherent narrative. Accessible to undergraduates, the book nonetheless tackles the complexities of colonial art history. To conform to the demands of an introductory survey, necessary omissions have been made (and acknowledged) while the relevant debates and difficulties facing researchers are clearly presented.

  • Bindman, David, and Henry Louis Gates Jr., eds. The Image of the Black in Western Art. Vol. 3, Part 1. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010–2012.

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    The culmination of decades of research, the multivolume Image of the Black in Western Art is the standard source on European and North American representations of Africans and individuals of the African diaspora. Students and scholars of Atlantic history are especially well served by Volumes 3 and 4. The latter, mostly written by Hugh Honour, is a new and revised edition of the book first published in 1989. Vol. 3: Part 2, 2011; Vol. 4: Parts 1 and 2, 2012.

  • Donahue-Wallace, Kelly. Art and Architecture of Viceregal Latin America, 1521–1821. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008.

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    The art and architecture of the Viceroyalties of New Spain, Peru, New Granada, and La Plata receive thorough contextualization paired with substantial analyses of the individual works in terms of materials, labor, forms, iconography, function, and reception. Donahue-Wallace thoughtfully engages with current debates and discourses, providing strong foundations for an undergraduate audience newly introduced to the art history of colonial Latin America.

  • Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–.

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    Ideal for undergraduates. This source provides authoritative essays on the full range of art historical fields. With its global scope and close attention to specific works of art and architecture, the Heilbrunn Timeline can be used to understand the artistic movements and diverse forms of visual culture related to Atlantic history.

  • Kirkham, Pat, and Susan Weber, eds. History of Design: Decorative Arts and Material Culture, 1400–2000. New Haven, CT: Bard Graduate Center and Yale University Press, 2013.

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    An innovative and useful corrective to standard art history textbooks, which rely on hierarchies of visual culture that privilege techniques like oil painting and marble carving over such practices as textile weaving, wood carving, or porcelain painting. Chapters are written by various experts. Students of Atlantic history are especially well-served by several sections on “The Americas,” which are dispersed due to the book’s chronological organization.

  • Smarthistory.

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    A peer-reviewed, open-access textbook for the study of all areas of the history of art, Smarthistory remains a nonprofit endeavor. Its primary aim is to provide authoritative information to pre-collegiate and college-level students. Many art history instructors have adopted Smarthistory as their main textbook for university courses. Field experts contribute essays and commentaries, which are peer-assessed. It is recognized as a trustworthy source for information.

  • Solkin, David H. Art in Britain 1660–1850. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 2015.

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    An excellent survey of British art, with references to but not lengthy discussions of concerns and themes generated by Atlantic history. Though not fully integrated into the textbook, issues related to art and empire as well as art and race are thoroughly accounted for in the bibliography under subheading “Thematics: Empire and Race.”

  • Westermann, Mariët. A Worldly Art: The Dutch Republic, 1585–1718. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007.

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    An introduction to Dutch Golden Age painting accessible to undergraduate students. While not especially attentive to the art of the Atlantic world, Westermann’s thematic chapters address such related issues as the emergent art market, the relationship between representational conventions and science, and the nascent Netherlandish national imagination. First published in 1996 (New York: Harry Abrams).

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