Diana Greenwald talks ‘Painting by the Numbers’ with the UConn Humanities Institute 

According to data women tend to take jobs with more strict schedules avoiding the irregularities that come with being a mother. Photo by Bich Tran/Pexels.

On Wednesday, Jan. 25, the UConn Humanities Institute hosted a Digital Humanities and Media Studies talk with art and economic historian Diana Greenwald. Following an introduction by Yohei Igarashi, the associate director of the Humanities Institute, Greenwald discussed the data-driven histories of 19th-century art. The dialogue offered a peek into the contents of her 2021 book “Painting by the Numbers.”  

Greenwald, an assistant curator at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, works as a historian studying art through a data-driven approach. While Greenwald acknowledges the importance of a qualitative analysis of art, she points out that using data uncovers previously invisible historical relationships and trends: for example, the presence of women in the world of art.  

American art historian Linda Nochlin famously took a stance on this in her 1971 essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” However, when looking at 19th-century still lifes, a genre neglected in many museum galleries, women artists were found in abundance. The default idea is that at the time, it was more appropriate for women to draw or paint still lifes. Yet, Greenwald questions whether this was the case.  

“Women, as much progress as we’ve made, often shoulder a disproportionate amount of domestic burden at home, particularly if they have children,” Greenwald said. “A lot of the gender wage gap actually comes from the difference between mothers and men.”  

Rather than women artists dominating the still life genre because the work is considered appropriate, Greenwald suggests that it is a result of accessibility.  

“There’s an incompatibility between kinds of domestic demands and professional demands, particularly when those professional top demands are really unpredictable,” Greenwald explained.  

Women tended to take on jobs with designated shifts, avoiding roles with irregular shifts due to their responsibilities at home.  

“Landscape painting often involved, particularly in the United States, a trip out West with largely with male-dominated survey parties. It’s a huge amount of time, not really under your control and involves long absences,” said Greenwald.  

With still lifes, artists can work from the comfort of their own homes. 

“It’s a little bit like the shift work of art; the fruit and flowers don’t really have their own schedule that they are demanding of you. I mean, I guess they could rot. But you can set them up and come and go as you please. And you don’t need your own studio space,” Greenwald emphasized.  

The same notion of accessibility can be tied to artistic mediums as well. Sculpting, for example, requires resources many women of the 19th-century may not have had access to. Still lifes require not much more than pencil or paint, and are far more accessible to women — yet the genre remains known as one of the bottom tiers of artwork.  

All of this is supported by data, much of which is readily available on museum websites.  

“What I’ve run into is a sense that if you present graphs, you’re trying to claim that something is objective. That’s not at all what it is,” Greenwald said, explaining misunderstandings that arise using data in the humanities. The two go hand-in-hand.  

You can visit the Humanities Institute website to learn more about upcoming programs.  

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