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Putting a date to artwork? It’s staring you in the face!


A common ‘problem’ with studying Art History is remembering the exact production date of a piece of artwork. It’s handy knowing this information for all kinds of reasons (not least in helping towards boosting the marks in the dreaded slide tests at St. Andrews) but being the kind of person who always forgets even the simplest dates i.e. the wife’s birthday (oopps!!) this ‘remembering dates’ business can be a big can of worms for me. Or rather I should say it WAS a big can of worms for me until I sat down and cunningly devised a technique that would help me remember production dates a lot easier. So seeing as I’m such a wonderful person (so I keep telling myself) I’m going to share the technique so it may be of some benefit to others (hopefully your one of them).

I’ll begin with a question - When studying artwork (whether painting, sculpture or architecture etc.) what single factor are you always assured of? Come on it’s so obvious that it’s staring you in the  face…quite literally! Give up? Ok then. Well the one single factor that you're ALWAYS assured of is  that you obviously have the artwork in front of you. Bearing this in mind would it not make sense therefore to somehow also put the date in front of you at the same time? I think it does and that’s what this technique attempts to do.

How? Well the method literally embeds the date into the artwork using ‘features’ of the piece of art itself allowing instant recollection of the production date. As I’m guessing that you’re now staring blankly at the monitor in complete confusion it would perhaps be a good time to explain this technique of 'date embedding' using a few pictorial examples. The following are among a selection that I prepared for my first Art History slide test in 2005/06).

First up is Leonardo da Vinci’s Battle of Anghiari, painted in 1503 (click picture to expand):

As you can see it strikes one almost instantly that the hind quarters of the right hand horse forms an 03 shape (an intentional da Vinci inclusion perhaps?). So, for me, this was an easy artwork in which to embed the date and even easier to learn.

Next is Holbein’s Henry VIII and the Barber Surgeons painted in 1543:

In this painting the window in the background has ‘4’ distinct rectangles and only the first ‘3’ Barber Surgeons to the left of Henry VIII in the front row have hats on. Again another really simple and straightforward prompt for remembering the date '43'.

In Titian’s Three Ages of Man (1513) I’ve focussed on the old man sitting alone holding a skull.

Obviously this is symbolic of death which on its own is unlucky (particularly if you’re the one who’s facing death) but the fact that he is on his own with only a skull for company also makes the poor man appear rather unlucky. This links nicely to the tradition of number ‘13’ being unlucky and the coincidal date of production.

Does the technique work for architecture? You bet it does! Here’s Bramante’s Tiempetto c.1502 as an example:

I used the fact that the building stands out as being very rounded in appearance suggesting the '0'  and looking at the first floor there are clearly ‘2’ ornamental display features standing out - again easy to embed and easy to remember.

I hope that's enough examples to illustrate the method so I'll move on. While this technique does  requires a degree of time investment to embed the dates and memorise how you have embeded them I think the method offers a number of additional benefits:

  • Your making use of the artwork itself as a ’memory container’ for the date making it the perfect prompting tool.
  • The technique brings a bit of creative, right brain thinking into the learning process making revision a lot more fun and interesting (not that Art History isn’t fun in the first place of course :o) ).
  • When you have a potential 250+ slides to remember for a slide test this technique provides a way of naturally sorting the resultant 'mountain' of dates into some kind of order.

Of course the technique isn't foolproof though and it does have a number of disadvantages:

  • As mentioned before you have to spend additional time deciding how to embed the date into each piece of artwork. However I think this forces one to study the artwork to a greater depth which brings extra benefit.
  • The technique only allows you to embed the actual year that the artwork was produced and not the century i.e. in the case of the Battle of Anghiari one can only embed 03 and not the 15. However one should, at this level, know the years that the artist was alive (at least roughly) so that really shouldn't cause a problem.
  • Some works of art take so long to complete that they have both a start and an end date i.e. Michelangelo’s David 1501-1504. It’s difficult to embed both dates into the piece so I generally only choose to embed the end date i.e. 1504 in this case. It’s not a perfect solution but it gets you close (and sometimes I remember the start date too)
  • It’s not always obvious or indeed easy to embed a date and a slightly different method of embedding does need to be adopted. For instance I had a problem deciding on how to embed the date 1490 into Michelangelo’s Madonna of the Stairs:

It looks to me as though the Madonna is sitting on the stairs waiting for something to happen. So I
instilled the belief that the Madonna was sitting on the stairs two years early in order to secure a prime viewing position for the setting off of Christopher Columbus' 1492 voyage of discovery. It's a strange method of embedding the date I know but it does use a similar 'right brain' methodology. 

Although there are some disadvantages to the technique I've developed I think they are cancelled out by the usefulness of the technique. I’ve been using this method for a while now and it has brought about a seriously big improvement in my ability to recall dates. Furthermore I’ve gotten a lot of enjoyment from figuring out how to slot the dates into the artwork which appeals to my creative side. Also I'm 'forced' to spend more time than I would normally studying the artwork and to  a greater depth which has brought an improvement in my ability to identify additional features within the artwork.  I sincerely hope that you will be able to make use of this technique in your revision. If nothing else, it's a lot of fun.


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Hi Robert, I finally discussed and linked to your art dates study method!

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