Tag Archives: art

Of Pies and Birds

Bird pies, pied birds, and pie birds.

It all started when I wanted to do a full-on program on mute swans and swan upping. As it turns out, this was a weird idea, and maybe not suited for an actual mini-class that people would actually come to. I never did get enough material for a program, but I did keep turning up primary sources on a fairly bizarre historical food. Behold! A Mute Swan Pie.

Kitchen scene with fancy swan pie.

Kitchen Interior by David Teniers the Younger, 1644.

I know it’s a lot to take in, but take a minute, and really process this. In the back, there’s people roasting various birds on spits over a fire. There’s even more game birds, including teeny songbirds (Katherine, later: and a GREY PARTRIDGE!! They’re everywhere!), bottom left, probably also destined for their own pies. Various meats abound. The swan pie is right there, on the table, next to the red-skirted cook who’s peeling apples. It’s fancied up with a crown and flower garlands.

Sooo… what on Earth is with the swan pie? Well, the pie itself is the ancestor of pot pies. So, meat filling, and the crust is a lot thicker and tougher than our flaky pie crust is today, because it’s meant to seal in and support all that meat. People still make and eat meat pies of this sort in the UK. So, inside the elaborate crust is the roasted mute swan meat, in its own gelatin and drippings. Also, it’s decorated with its own severed wings and head, which, guessing from copious amounts of 17th Century paintings, was the fanciest possible way to cook and present a bird.

Turkey Pie

Turkey pie with a pink rose in its beak.

Still Life With a Turkey Pie by Pieter Claesz, 1627.

 

Some Kind of Personal Small Bird Pie (Grey Partridge Perdix perdix ?? That’s my best guess.)

A picture representing February of a cook holding a tiny pie - what looks like a gray partridge pie I guess.

February by Joachim von Sandrart, 1642.

I think that the personal pie bird in question really looks like it’s a gray partridge. What do you think?

Gray partridge in snow.

By K.Pitk [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Hmm. Gray neck and front. Speckled wings and tail. Rust colored face. Also, I’ve been looking at partridges long enough trying to figure out what that bird is that the word has started to look really weird. Partridge. Partridge.  P a r t r i d g e.  Gah! On to the next thing.

In addition to ending up inside pies, some birds are pied birds. Magpies, for example. Pied is an archaic word describing the pattern of having patches of different colors, usually black and white. The Eurasian Magpie is usually what people mean by magpie, and it’s easy to remember what it’s scientific name is, because it’s what Pikachu would say (although arguably misspelled.) Pica pica

Eurasian magpie on a fence

By Garry Knight (Flickr: Magpie on a Fence) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Pied Piper 

A street fair in Hamelin, Germany, with a bunch of kids dressed up as rats, and a pied piper guy.

The city of Hamelin, Germany still has all sorts of stuff commemorating the Pied Piper from folklore, or, creepily enough, maybe based on historical fact.

Healthy surplus kids getting sold to slave traders is not off the table in this case. Especially since the rat-catching bit seems to have been added a couple centuries later, and doesn’t show up in the original sources we have for this folktale… Check it out at this nifty archive of folktales. Well, that took a horribly grim turn. You know what will cheer everybody up? Ponies and linguistics! Yay!

 

Piebald Horse

An old picture of a piebald drum horse.

A piebald horse is a horse that is black and white. A skewbald horse is a horse that is any other color than black and white.

Stewball was a racehorse. No. Really. He was an actual horse. And he was probably a skewbald. Hence the name. Also, if you’ve never heard this word used for horse colors before, it’s because in North America, we generally use the Spanish-derived pinto (painted) to describe a white-splashed horse. Then the word bounced back to English, and we call them paint horses too. Lest you assume that the picture is one of those dusty crusty remains of the long lost past, nah, they still totally have ceremonial drum horses. What’s harder than playing a slide trombone? Playing a slide trombone on a horse.

The Pied Crow Corvus albus

A pied crow - black with a white belly - in a tree.

By Thomas Schoch [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

These guys are native to sub-Saharan Africa, and not to be confused with crow pie, of course. As we’ve seen already, it’s totally reasonable that the four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie are literally an entire crow massacre cooked in their own juices in a pie. What a way to eat crow.

So, now that we’ve covered bird pies and pied birds, what about pie birds? If you made a totally sealed pie, with no holes cut in the top crust, the steam and pressure build up from cooking might cause a piesplosion. Or, less dramatically, at least soggy crust. To keep the steam from ruining your pie, you need to make sure the crust has a hole to let it out. Sure, it’s pretty easy to just cut holes in the crust, but, in true Victorian fashion, the people of the 19th Century weren’t going to leave it at that. A pie bird is a little ceramic piece shaped like a bird (usually with an open beak), and hollow, with an open bottom and top. You put the pie bird in your pie and poking up through the crust, to vent it. That’s it. Wikipedia has an article, but otherwise it’s hard to find more about the use of pie birds. We just don’t use pie birds much anymore. Instead, people collect them as prime examples of obscure consumer culture kitsch. Nothing quite like kitchen accessories that nobody really needs.

High Concept and Low Concept

Sometimes, if you’re discussing books that you read, games that you play, shows that you watch, music you listen to – basically any media you consume – you need some specialized ideas and terms to help you describe and discuss it. “It was great” or “It was bad” or “I thought it was OK” are all very well and good, but it’s so much more satisfying if you can also talk about WHY you liked/disliked something. If you want to win arguments and impress your friends, remember your ABCs – Always Backup Criticism.

Have examples, of course, of things you like or don’t and why. But, sometimes, you need some special vocabulary and ideas in order to help you with your critique. That means it’s time to add another idea to your toolbox: high vs low concept. This is all about how much concept a work of art contains, not how good the concept is. Think of it as a matter of the amount the concept itself contributes to the total content of the work.

Jane Austen’s novels are generally low concept. The idea of the novels – that people in various economic circumstances need to get paired up (or not paired up, or not paired up the way they thought) – is nowhere near as important to the books as the interactions between the characters, which is why people read them. Here’s an example pie chart, based on a very precise and academic guesstimate:

There’s also works that split it pretty much right down the middle, generating interest in equal parts from the idea that drives them, as well as the execution of the plot and characters:

On the far end of the scale, there’s also works that are high concept – that get their interest mostly from the ideas that drive them. I can think of no better example than 18 Days, which breaks down about like this:

As I’ve probably mentioned before, the library has the concept art book, if you want a look at the idea, but, sadly, they didn’t get full funding for the series as it was originally conceived. Instead, you can watch it in a few different languages on the Graphic India YouTube channel. Still pretty awesome, though.

Whatever the level of concept in your media, now you have a new way to talk about the things you love: is it high concept, low concept, or a balance of the two?

Image Gallery

In my quest to provide you only the best of content, I frequently raid Wikimedia Commons – the free-use image archive from which Wikipedia gets its pictures – to complete my posts. When I need a picture of something crazy, like a Javan Chevrotain, or a fancy coconut chalice, that’s where I go. The point is, I look at a LOT of images, to pick the best ones. Sometimes, I stumble across images that are so amazingly great, that I can’t forget them, even if they can’t be used for the post I’m writing. It would be a shame to let them fade into obscurity, and I just have to share some of them with you. You’re welcome. (Since I’m finding crazy images all the time, this will probably become the first of a series, too!)

 

A Snuggle of Honduran White Bats

Four white tent bats snuggle up under a leaf.

By Leyo (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 ch (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5/ch/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Ectophylla alba, the Honduran White Bat, or the Honduran Tent Bat, is a species of bat that roosts, not in caves or hollow trees, but underneath large leaves, like those of banana plants. They nibble through the ribs of the leaves, to cause them to droop over in a tent, sheltering the small colony of bats from the weather. Their stark white fur also acts as camouflage, as sunlight filtering through the leaves tints the bats a matching green. This picture shows a colony of four bats all snuggled up together to sleep under their leaf tent during the day. You can even see the bite marks along either side of the leaf spine. These bats are incredibly cute. “Snuggle” should obviously be the collective noun for a group of roosting bats.

 

The Monowheel Driver

Smug man in a hat on a monowheel, which is a motorcycle that has only one wheel, but instead of the engine and driver sitting over the wheel, they sit INSIDE a really large single wheel.

Look at that smug expression. I think I’d be that smug too, if I had a monowheel motorcycle.

I love everything about this picture. The boots, the hat, the diesel-punk aesthetic of the technology (except this actually happened in real life). The fact that it’s a monowheel. A monowheel is like a motorized unicycle, but instead of you sitting ON the engine and wheel, you sit on the engine, INSIDE the one giant wheel. The engine ratchets you around the rail inside the wheel, and your gravity keeps the whole machine moving forward. Don’t ask what happens if the wheel gets stuck in the mud or something. I love the nonplussed bystanders, just out of focus in the background. Most of all, though, I love the smugness on the driver’s face. The “you know you want this monowheel” look in the eyes.

 

Cry ‘Havoc’! and Let Slip the CATS OF WAR!!

It's a painted wall scroll. Of a samurai in black armor with kitty ears on the helmet, walking a cat - who also is wearing armor, on a leash.

I’m speechless.

What. What is even happening here. This is one of the most baffling things I’ve ever seen. It’s a painted scroll of a warrior, in armor, walking a cat on a leash. Yet, if you take the time to look at the details, it only gets weirder. The cat has its own tiny suit of brigandine armor. Cats are not known for their ability to either leash train or wear clothes. The warrior’s helmet has cat ears on it. I love the kind of put-out expression, and the dainty hold on the leash. Why isn’t he wearing shoes? Who is this? Is this some sort of edgy and topical sociopolitical commentary of the mid 1600s? Or… are we to believe that war cats were a thing in the Sengoku Era? Did some warrior of that time have a cat… theme… going on? If so, who? Did Japan’s fascination with cat people start way earlier than anime would have us believe??!? So many questions. Almost no answers.

Howard Pyle’s Pirates

Play a game with me: imagine a pirate.

Go ahead, I’ll wait.

 

 

Got a picture of your pirate in your head?

You’re imagining a Howard Pyle pirate. Yes, this definitely includes Jack Sparrow. In a previous post, I mentioned a centuries-old book about art criticism, and how even now, the ideas in it shape our perception of what art even is. This time, it’s about the illustrations themselves. Illustrations to books have a profound impact on the popular imagination, and yet they’re rarely given as much weight as the words on the page. You probably don’t know who Howard Pyle was, yet, he’s in your head right now, painting your pirates on the canvas of your imagination, with an army of other illustrators, costume designers, and film directors doing his bidding, and has been completely dominating the entire perception of what pirates were for the last century. Now that’s raw power.

 

Introducing (Officially) Pyle’s Pirates

Although you’re already subconsciously familiar with them, all of the following scurvy sea dogs are from Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates (1903). This gorgeously illustrated book is full of illustrations of pirates. Pyle’s pirates are grubby, scruffy, and rough-looking, yet arrogant and roguishly fashionable. The artist uses red as a highlight to draw and hold the eye. As usual, click on pictures to embiggen!

painting of pirates dividing up a pile of gold

Pirates divvy up the loot.

Is a fancy red sash really practical for people who have to climb rigging and fight with cutlasses? No. Did real pirates – even European ones of the Caribbean – actually dress like that? Probably not. Do they look great? Heck yes.

Sparrow look-alike in a red cloak.

I’m just going to go ahead and call this guy Captain Sparrow. Nice pose and red cloak.

This pirate even has earrings, and scraggly hair, and possibly even eyeliner. He might be Johnny Depp. He’s also an illustration that’s over 100 years old. Generations of kids have grown up on Howard Pyle pirates, at this point. By now, this is just what pirates look like.

Pirates fight over treasure chest, while the crew looks on.

I love basically everything about this picture. The composition, the colors, the anatomy, and how straightforward the storytelling is. What’s going on? Pirates knife-fighting over their share of the booty, obviously. Yarrrr mateys.

Howard Pyle had students, who went on to paint their own Pyle-style pirates. Pylerates, if you will. This group of massively influential illustrators became known as the Brandywine School – including, most famously, N. C. Wyeth. The techniques of the school, and the means of storytelling through art would go on to shape illustrations in books for decades to come, and even eventually mutate into comic books as we know it. How do we get to comic books from here? Let’s look at Wyeth, for a bit.

 

N. C. Wyeth

What are illustrations actually for? Seriously. It’s not just pictures to decorate books. Illustrations go with the text. Sometimes, a good illustration even adds to the storytelling even more nuance than was in the text to begin with. The story itself even happens in the pictures. Look at this N. C. Wyeth illustration from The Boy’s King Arthur (1922):

A joust with knights, the blue knight is unhorsed by the red knight.

There’s a lot going on here. Choice of what to illustrate, motion – splinters of lance in the air – reaction – the rearing horse – everything adds to the story, and makes it exciting.

Fancy expensive books need illustrations, but so do cheap dime novels, too – so do magazines, and newspapers. Soon, newspapers and magazines were paying authors to write short stories or continuing storylines – serials – for publication, to draw in an audience. All of these need illustrators. It wasn’t long before these illustrated serials got their own section, and became standard features. Some magazines specialized in publishing these picture stories.

Billy Bones with a spyglass, wearing a billowing cape.

You know what this character is like, even if you haven’t read Treasure Island at all. It’s the attitude and the cape. Instead of a cliff above the sea, imagine a skyscraper above Gotham City. That’s how these techniques transfer to comic books.

Next time you read a picture book, or any book with illustrations, think of how different it would be without them. Yet, we give less weight to the pictures, or even scorn books that have illustrations. Consider the case of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. These books have been on the American Library Association’s most challenged book list for decades. Top of the list, for 1990 to 1999, even. Dropped lower afterwards, though – and why? Because in the meantime the publisher totally caved to pressure from pearl-clutching parents, and changed the bone-chilling original illustrations which is why they were so frequently challenged. 

People would be up in arms if the opposite happened, and a challenged book “just” had all the text changed, but the illustrations left alone. But Scary Stories was mutilated, and hardly anybody but the fans of the original illustrations noticed. Stick up for illustrations, and artists. Pictures are important. Read the original versions of the Scary Stories books in protest, if you want.

Pylerates attack the stockade in Treasure Island.

N. C. Wyeth did great Pylerates, too! You also owe it to yourself to read the original Treasure Island, unabridged.

 

Cover of a book about Wyeth. Search the catalog for more.

The library has lots of books about Pyle, Wyeth (both of them) and the Brandywine School. They’re gorgeous.

 

Rosa Bonheur, Animal Painter

Or, the painting food chain and the revolutionary importance of wearing pants.

painting of a bull (title: monarch of the herd) by Rosa Bonheur

And that’s absolutely no bull (It’s a painting of one. By Rosa Bonheur.)

Background – The Hierarchy of Genres

Before the photographic camera caused a crisis in the arts by the early 20th Century resulting in expressionism, impressionism, cubism, and various other modern-isms, there was a well-defined hierarchy of paintings – and therefore artists. Read more about it here at the Tate Glossary. At the very bottom were still life paintings, of household objects and food, and flowers.

Van Gogh Sunflowers

Sunflowers, 1887. According to the Hierarchy of Genres, Van Gogh is a bottom-feeder painter making bottom-feeder paintings of sunflowers. That now sell for absurd millions of dollars. Things Happened between 1699 and now…

Image of the Oath of the Horatii

Jacques-Louis David, however, makes super-prestigious history paintings, and is basically a rockstar. This is the Oath of the Horatii, 1784.

For Rosa Bonheur, though, the most important thing to know is the rationale behind the Painting Food Chain: Europeans believed that literally everything belonged in a divinely-mandated Great Chain of Being, from God down to rocks, and humans were the greatest form of life on Earth. Literally, some things were created to be better than others. Have a look:

Great Chain of Being illustration.

An illustration of the Great Chain of Being, from God through angels and humans, and animals, down to rocks. Note that each tier also has higher and lower. Naturally Kings are the highest form of human life (just to either side of Adam and Eve in the middle there, connected with a line to the chain). Convenient. If you’re a King, of course: “hey, I can’t help confiscating your lands and whatever – God put me in charge.” That’s why a coronation ceremony requires clergy, after all. That’s also what’s so revolutionary about the Declaration of Independence. Either George III has the literal God-given right to put down the rebellious colonies and tax the britches right off their butts, OR ditch him and the whole framework by founding your brand-new country on principles of human rights and equality. The bedrock of our founding documents is almost literal heresy. American history is, in large part, the history of the tension between centuries-old social orders of hierarchy and the necessary rejection of hierarchy on which the country was founded. In the words of Keanu Reeves: Whoa.

And now you understand almost all European and American history better! Glad we had that little diversion. It’ll help you in history class later, I swear. So, painters of inanimate things and plants were naturally below painters of animals, who were naturally below painters of the human form. But, in order to paint the human form, you have to practice, and spend quite some time observing and sketching actual humans. This means you have to have anatomy lessons, and live nude models. Now, in the days before first-year college students, the only people who would take their clothes off for money were literal prostitutes, or the truly desperate and destitute. Becoming a painter of the human form required seeing people naked and hanging out with sex workers. Because this was off-limits for women, women were denied the education and therefore the chance (with a few exceptions) to break into the highest ranks of painting.

(If you want to take a deep dive, check out this super-crunchy primary source at archive.org – in which Andre Felibien literally lays out the food chain of painters for what would become the French Academy. Hope you’re OK with clawing your way via google translate through some barely-modern French. I can’t really read this, since I took Spanish in High School, but it’s still a fascinating book, nonetheless. When you look at it, you’re looking at the book that shapes European art for the next several centuries, and casts a shadow, even today. If you’ve ever thought of some things but not others as Real Art; if you’ve been to an art museum or gallery; if you’ve ever wanted to know what it took to be a Real Artist; if you’ve ever wondered why some paintings are stupid expensive, but others are cheap – all of this means that the ideas in this book have gotten into your brain – and you haven’t even read it! That’s what people mean when they say something about how books can change the world or how knowledge is power. Now that you know, you can consciously choose to agree or disagree with the book’s view of art. Maybe YOU can be a Real Artist.)

The Hierarchy of Genres did get pushback, right from the start, however: as you can imagine, artists didn’t like being arbitrarily assigned to a lower income bracket forever. Landscape painters started sneaking people into paintings, and portraitists would sneak in allegorical details and landscape.

Lady Hamilton as a Baccante by Louise Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, 1790. Portrait, or Genre Painting?

Lady Hamilton as a Baccante by Louise Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, 1790. Portrait, or History Painting?

Paulus Potter - The Young Bull, 1647

Paulus Potter – The Bull, 1647. This painting is actually about life-size, which means it’s enormous.    o_O    Bad Paulus Potter! You and your edging in on history painting turf with huge paintings of bullocks.

Which brings us right up to the middle of the 1800s. Painters were sneaking in attacks on the Great Painting Food Chain, the French Academy had a stranglehold on what art even means, and who gets to be a Real Artist – and then photography was invented, and massively jacked everything up.

Photgraph of Crown Princess Liliuokalani and Queen Kapiolani at Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee, 1887.

Crown Princess Liliuokalani and Queen Kapiolani at Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, 1887. Now even if you’re a queen, you can get photographic portraits anyway. Even if you’re NOT a queen, too.

Photography caught on like wildfire, and now you didn’t need a specialized artist to paint people, or anything else, really. The painting world faced a crisis. The hierarchy of genres (and therefore artists) could no longer hold, if anyone with a camera and a darkroom could make images of anything they wanted. Artists pushed harder than ever to break the art food chain, which brings us to the incredible life of Rosa Bonheur…

 

The Artist

Rosa Bonheur was an animal painter, which was traditionally ranked above still life but below portrait and history painting. She went to slaughterhouses to study animal anatomy, and spent enormous amounts of time sketching in the field.

Rosa Bonheur sketch of bulls with notes.

Rosa Bonheur sketch of bulls with notes.

She went to zoos, and studied exotic animals, and animals she couldn’t get close to in the wild.

The Wounded Eagle by Rosa Bonheur

The Wounded Eagle by Rosa Bonheur. Golden Eagles are not known for their tameness and docility.

She was immensely popular during her lifetime, although tastes in art have changed, and she is less remembered now than some of her contemporaries, who were on the fringes of the art world at the time. Like Vincent Van Gogh.

A Ghillie and Two Shetland Ponies in a Misty Landscape by Rosa Bonheur. Hey: it's got a human in it! I see what you did there.

A Ghillie and Two Shetland Ponies in a Misty Landscape by Rosa Bonheur. Hey: it’s got a human in it! I see what you did there.

As it turns out, riding horses, tromping across cow pastures, through heather, and forests, is pretty challenging in a corset and ankle-length skirts. Fed up with the restrictions of women’s clothes and gender roles getting in the way of her work and life in general, she got a prescription for pants from her doctor, so she could get an Official Pants Permit so the police wouldn’t arrest her for wearing men’s clothes.

Rosa Bonheur's actual police permit to wear pants.

This is Rosa Bonheur’s literal Police Permit to Wear Pants. I don’t know what’s worse, the fact that this exists at all, or the fact that this happened often enough that there’s AN OFFICIAL PRE-PRINTED DOCUMENT FOR THIS. I don’t even. Just let people wear pants. Sheesh. Also: it looks like it was good for only six months at a time.

Anyway, armed with an official Pants Permit, Rosa Bonheur went on to go to farms, and hunting grounds, and all sorts of rugged places, and rode lots of horses (astride, of course, not sidesaddle, because she has a permit to wear pants now). Her most famous painting is The Horse Fair (1855), which she worked on with her friend, Natalie Micas.

Picture of Rosa Bonheur's The Horse Fair

Rosa Bonheur, The Horse Fair. The artist herself is visible wearing a black hat and a blue shirt, behind the head of the rearing grey horse in the center of the image.

 

Rosa Bonheur went on to continue to wear pants, and paint acclaimed and highly-sought-after paintings – whose outrageous success despite being animal paintings further eroded the Hierarchy of Genres – until her eventual death at age 77 in 1899. She was an animal painter, but with the success and fame of a history painter.

Lithograph of Rosa Bonheur in her studio.

You know you’ve made it when other painters are painting paintings of you as a painter painting paintings. This is a lithograph, though. Possibly based on a painting, but there’s a photograph of her in an almost identical pose.

This one’s a real painting:

Anna Klumkpe, Portrait of Rosa Bonheur.

Portrait of Rosa Bonheur, by Anna Klumpke. You see that medal on her jacket? That’s the French Legion of Honor. She was even promoted to Officer, too. That’s how important she was, during her lifetime.

 

You can also get all the info on Rosa Bonheur straight from the horse’s mouth (or at least really close), and read this book! Rosa Bonheur: the Artists (Auto) Biography by Anna Klumpke; Gretchen van Slyke, translator.

A picture of the cover of the book.

Protip: it’s at the library.

Squeeze the Source!

After all those science-y posts, here’s a return to history, with the very first ever Squeeze the Source challenge!

Last time we did history, the topic was the amazing history of high-heeled shoes. You can be a historian too, if you learn how to squeeze information out of sources. Pretty much everything around you, past and present, has a lot to say about who made it and why, even to the point of throwing light on the society and technology of the world they were made in.

Since squeezing sources is a skill, and requires some practice, I’ll show you how it’s done, and then demonstrate with a few sources, before turning you loose on poor, unsuspecting Caravaggio. (Don’t feel bad for him though: his biography reads like a laundry list of every possible crime against public order you could commit in late Renaissance Italy, punctuated by massive amounts of corruption – hey, it was Renaissance Italy, what did you expect? – and artistic brilliance. Besides, he’s been dead for centuries. He won’t mind.)

Cover of the book Caravaggio: a Life Sacred and Profane.

“Troubled Artist” doesn’t even begin to cover it. Getting into constant brawls with street toughs is one of the least ridiculous and drama-filled things in his life. Why, yes, the library has this book. Why do you ask?

How to Squeeze a Source:

  1. You know things too. Don’t forget that.
  2. Unleash your inner four-year-old.
  3. Don’t take anything for granted, or make assumptions.
  4. Ask the blindingly obvious questions.
  5. Answer everything with equally obvious answers.
  6. Follow those obvious answers to their conclusions.
  7. Collect and connect these conclusions to the broader world.

Demonstration: Coconut Cup

A photo of a coconut cup. carved coconut with silver settings.

A Coconut Cup.

What’s this? A coconut cup.

What’s it made of? Coconut shell and silver.

Fancy or Plain? Really fancy. Carved coconut and lots of silver work. Engraved writing. Some serious time investment and skill went into this. Probably specialized artists involved.

So, writing: more about that? In a Latin alphabet, like English, but I can’t read it. Looks like it’s Dutch maybe?

Where was the cup made? Northern Europe.

Any other details? The carving on the coconut shows a woman with scissors, and a sleeping man in her lap, with soldiers standing by. Sampson and Delilah! Clothes look contemporary to the time the cup was made though. I’d guess 1600s ish.

Artists make art because people buy it. Who’s buying fancy coconut cups? Rich people.

What do I know, based on the coconut cup? Northern Europe in the 1600s has specialized carvers and silversmiths – an economy capable of supporting artisans. Coconuts are special and extra fancy to them, for them to bother encrusting one in silver, and going to all that trouble to decorate it. They also got the coconut from somewhere, so they either have trade networks to the tropics, or someone’s very carefully hoarding the precious coconuts that wash up on the beaches. Religion (Sampson and Delilah – they’d have to assume that others would know what the carving is of), wealth, and trade literally on display in this one object. I’m sure if I understood the language, I’d know even more.

And that’s how you squeeze a source. The catch, however, is in the unexpected stuff. I can’t read the language on the cup, and I don’t know why Sampson and Delilah are so important, in this context. I just don’t have enough cultural knowledge of the social world in which this cup belongs.

The most important thing is this: if you get in a plane, and travel to a different place, you find yourself in another culture, and you will be missing some important information to help you understand the world around you. The most fundamental things are up for grabs, as soon as you find yourself operating in a new cultural environment. Here’s the kicker, though: if you had a time machine, and travel to a different time, even if you stay in your own place, you’ll find yourself in a different culture too. There’s things we take for granted that someone from just 100 years ago would find alien. So always go with what the source is telling you, and don’t let your assumptions blind you to what’s right in front of your face.

 

It’s Your Turn!

Cardsharps by Caravaggio. Italian, Circa 1594.

Cardsharps by Caravaggio

Have a good look, ask the questions, and see what you can learn about Caravaggio’s world.

Ask yourself questions like:

What’s going on in this painting? What objects do you see? Anything recognizable? Materials? Behaviors of people? Clothes? What are people doing? What can you tell about each person in the painting? Their interactions? Who would buy this painting? Why? What does this tell you about Caravaggio’s society?

 

Good luck, and happy source squeezing! (By the way, squeezing lots of sources to make some kind of cohesive Ultimate Source Fruit Punch Medley is called historical research. One source is a nifty thing, but lots of sources, all consistent – that’s the basis for a thesis.)