by Diana Seave Greenwald. Princeton University Press, February 2021. 256 p. ill. ISBN 9780691192451 (h/c), $35.00.
Reviewed March 2021
Matt Garklavs, Electronic Resources Librarian, Pratt Institute Libraries, firstname.lastname@example.org
Diana Seave Greenwald’s Painting by Numbers: Data-Driven Histories of Nineteenth-Century Art is an ambitious study that synthesizes two disparate approaches of scholarship: art history and economic analysis. Greenwald is currently an assistant curator of the collection at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. With academic degrees in both fields, exploring the patterns between art and economics has been a focal point throughout Greenwald’s career and that experience shows in this new book.
Greenwald deploys a “distinct blend of elements from economics, art history, and the digital humanities” on three cases studies: paintings of the countryside commonly exhibited at Parisian salons during the nineteenth century; an overview of how domestic responsibilities impact the representation of female artists in museums; and the topics covered by English artists depicting colonies during the height of the British empire.
In each example, Greenwald interweaves statistical analysis with archival anecdotes about various painters. The way the author wields this tandem reveals just how well the two approaches complement each other. Greenwald proves that data “can better contextualize the stories of individual artists and objects and paying close attention to the stories of these artists and their works can provide better insight into the individual choices and details that, in aggregate, become a general trend in the data.” To support her research, Greenwald amassed a wealth of datasets by utilizing “exhibition checklists, catalogues raisonnés, finding aids to archival sources and collections information,” to produce what she calls “a data-driven history of art.”
Greenwald qualifies this approach by addressing sample bias early in the book. Rather than just focusing on well-known artists, she considers a larger body of work often overlooked in scholarship. In this respect, Greenwald illustrates how to utilize quantitative analysis to create a more cohesive and inclusive pedagogy for analyzing paintings.
Greenwald bookends Painting by Numbers by paying homage to Jules Prown, another art historian who championed formal analysis and other innovations. Like Prown, Greenwald is a pioneer in the field who is willing to explore new perspectives and challenge past presumptions. The book paves the way for similar interdisciplinary studies to follow.
Painting by Numbers is a publication that is welcome in any academic library. While the substance of this study may sound dense, Greenwald presents her argument in clear, concise prose that is approachable for undergraduates yet merits the attention of serious scholars. She includes plenty of imagery and charts along the way but saves the more extensive datasets in the appendices for those who are more curious. Readers should be curious because therein lies the virtue of Greenwald's work. Painting by Numbers shows the promise of what can be achieved when an abundance of information is wedded with insightful scholarship. The data is there, and it is ripe for the picking.