Art History

How I do art history research

I am researching the Schwartze family from Amsterdam. I focus on Thérèse Schwartze (1851-1918), the painter, and her niece, Lizzy Ansingh (1875-1959), also a painter and one of the Amsterdamse Joffers. One of my goals is to write a book about the letters and about the family. The center of my research is a collection of 500 letters written by and to members of the family. The letters were bought by my father at a stamp auction in the early 90’s. As I have a degree in astrophysics rather than art history, it took me a while to figure out how to do this research and document the results.

Postcard from Lizzy Ansingh to Thérèse Schwartze. Text in the upper left added later by Ansingh.

I started out by scanning all letters, including the envelopes, about 3000 scans in total. I then transcribed the letters in text files. Some of the letters in German were hard to read (they were in süterlin) so I hired someone to read those for me. The letters are in Dutch, English, French and German. I decided not to translate any of them, yet.

Next step was to build a database. For each letter, I entered key parameters as date, person who wrote it, recipient, locations, etc. Then I wrote software to access both the database as the scanned files and text files from a web portal. This allowed me to gradually enrich and manage all content.

I decided to limit the research to the letters and the people (senders and recipients) and information directly related to those people. This means, I use all letters that I have, but no letters that are available elsewhere. I am not writing a biography of Schwartze, nor of Ansingh, I decided to focus on a snapshot of their family life from 1880 until 1940, the period covered by the letters I have. There is an entry in my database for every person related to one or more of the letters, including a super short biography and external links.

Information is available online, in books, in the letters, everywhere. Information is not structured: multiple sources refer to the same events and the same people. So, how to start and where to start? I decided to start writing chapters about each person who wrote letters, received letters or is mentioned in the letters. For each chapter, I read sources directly related to the chapter. I started with the easy ones to get a feeling for the material. For the family members I’ll take a different approach: I’ll write a bio chapter for each of them, then I’ll write chapters about specific subjects, until I have covered all factual information. After that, I will have to reread all sources (books, mainly) to fill in details. Some of the sources cover a lot of people and subjects and I can’t go through all sources for each person or subject. Rather, I’ll read the sources once again and enrich the data and text when I encounter facts and information while reading. Like, I wrote a chapter about Wally Moes based on her letters and her autobiography, then in a book about Henriette Roland Holst I find one paragraph about Moes and I’ll add one or two lines to her chapter. It is an iterative process that I may have to go through multiple times.

There is also serendipity. Recently, I was reading a page online, unrelated to my project, on which I encountered the name of one Henry Tindal. I remembered having a letter of Helene Tindal, who turns out to be Henry’s daughter. Henry Tindal founded De Telegraaf, the largest newspaper in the Netherlands. His brother in law was Gerard Heineken, the founder of the Heineken brewery. This information is not art related, but it is relevant to my project as it shows how well the Schwartze family was connected to important people in society, having immigrated to the Netherlands only in 1845.

After having written all these chapters, I will have too much tekst for my book. The final phase will be adding focus and weeding out everything that does not contribute to the point I want to make. Which is: how a woman portrait painter and her extended family of sisters and nieces managed to be succesful in a male dominated society between 1880 and 1920.