A Day of Decadent Research – A View Backwards in Time

The other day I got lost on the internet. Well, not really lost, just sort of tucked away into some sort of strange time warp. This started as a research project, of course. I had gone on a quest for portraits that showed dress pins in use in women’s clothing. Projects like this can take hours as each picture is downloaded and scanned visually for any likely pins. But the project became much more.

I went to the Web Gallery of Art. Now this website collects pictures of art from all over Europe and makes it available for people to see, purchase prints, or send as postcards. It can be very dangerous location for me because it is easy to just start browsing. It is also unique because it covers such a broad range of time and has such a huge number of pieces of art. But this time I was determined to take a particular approach, and I did.

The search functions on the website allow the user to search by medium: painting, sculpture, etc., artist, dates, school of art, and many other things. I choose to look for portraits, beginning in the 1300’s. The search function works in fifty year blocks, so I was able, for instance, to tell the search engine to show me all of the paintings that were portraits, from any location or school, for the years 1301 through 1350. I would scan down the thumbnails of paintings that the computer presented me with, and choose which picture to look at in greater detail. If I spotted something that interested me, a simple click would present me with a large zoomable view.

Now I have gone to this website many times, usually on a quest for the work of some specific artist. But I am not sure that I had ever stepped through half centuries systematically before.

The results? I was fascinated. Not only was I looking at a panorama of faces, frozen in time, but I was seeing a snapshot of what they wanted to look like at their best. We know that some of the late Renaissance artists painted multiple portraits using the same dress – sort of a studio prop approach to portraits. But many of the faces in this collection, especially in the 1400 and 1500s belong to the emerging “middle class”. Call them Bergermeisters, donors, or minor dignitaries, they were wearing their best outfits. And there they were, warts and all.

Stepping though time gave me a much better understanding of the progression of fashions and the variations between the fashions that were popular at any given time. I would highly recommend it to anyone who would like a “bird’s eye view” of European fashion through the ages.

I am not a costumer, but I am interested in getting the right “look”. Of course I found a bunch of outfits that I would really love to have and a few that I am very thankful that I will never have to wear. I viewed each outfit as a whole, not just a dress, or a hat, or a belt, but the entire “package”. I think I see more “browsing” in my future. I might even get a little lost.

This portrait

This portrait (Photo credit: Wikipedia)