TIAMSA Blog: Summary of “Exploring the Gilded Age Art Market through a Digital Lens” by Anne Helmreich

On the 13th February, through the auspices of Louisa Woodbury, Head of Research, The Frick Art Reference Library, and Ellen Prokop, co-founder of the Digital Art History Lab, the Frick Art Collection, TIAMSA member Anne Helmreich, Associate Director, Digital Initiatives, Getty, presented a public lecture, “Exploring the Gilded Age Art Market through a Digital Lens.”

Anne Helmreich presenting “Exploring the Gilded Age Art Market through a Digital Lens” at the Frick in NYC

Focusing on the Gilded Age art market, with a particular emphasis on the social historical context of metropolitan New York City, the lecture reconstructed the ecosystem of that market. In so doing, the speaker drew a distinction between “digitized” art history, meaning the access to primary source documents now made possible to thanks to the digitization efforts of many cultural heritage institutions and the platform of the internet, and “digital art history,” referring to the use of computational analysis to advance critical understanding.  With respect to “digitized” art history, in many ways, scholars today are in a position similar to that of collectors in the Gilded Age. When wealthy industrialists such as Henry Clay Frick ventured into the art market, they had access to unprecedented quantities of information thanks, in large part, to the boom in art publishing and increasingly dense networks of communication and transportation. In turn, today, researchers seeking to investigate this market have access to much more material than ever before, thanks to the advances of the digital age. Hence the need for the methodologies and approaches of “digital art history” to aid in finding patterns of significance within this wealth of digital material.

Drawing on the Knoedler Gallery archive, as represented in the Getty Provenance Index, the speaker utilized statistical and network analysis to examine more closely the behavior of the art market. Statistical analysis revealed the changing amount of time works of art were held in stock by the Knoedler Gallery, a shift that could be mapped in provocative ways onto the imposition of tariffs and the Knoedler Gallery’s increasing interest in the Old Master market over the course of the Gilded Age. Likewise statistical analysis revealed how the Knoedler Gallery was highly functional in an international context, with close ties to Western Europe. Network analysis was employed to advance analysis of changes in taste over this period and to recognize the diversity of art works that constituted and sustained the larger ecosystem of the market.  When the market is studied through this lens, it becomes apparent that an artist such as Daniel Knight Ridgeway was just as important as Rembrandt van Rijn in the circulatory networks and exchanges that characterized the major collecting patterns of the Gilded Age.B