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New Open-Source Platform Maps the Provenances of Artworks

Mapping Paintings is an attempt to compile and visualize provenance data for individual artworks, from owners to past locations to details of sales.

Screenshot of Mapping Paintings, showing the migration of Frida Kahlo’s “Dos Mujeres (Salvadora y Herminia)” (1928) (screenshot via mapping paintings.org)

Before arriving at its current home, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Titian’s famed “Europa” hopped around Europe, switching owners for nearly 300 years. It traveled through the United Kingdom, passing through the hands of earls, lords, and art dealers; it spent some time in Paris, owned at one point by the Duc d’Orleans; and, prior to that, it belonged to the Spanish Royal Collection in Madrid. In short, its provenance is complicated.

Thanks to a new website, however, tracing such complex migrations of paintings is about to get easier. Launched by Boston University professor Jodi Cranston, Mapping Paintings is an open-source, searchable platform for compiling provenance data for individual artworks (not just paintings, despite its name), from owners to past locations to details of sales or transactions. It allows you to select artworks of interest and visualize their records across time and space, as plotted on a map. The map for “Europa,” for instance, begins in Venice, where Titian worked on the piece between 1560 and 1562, before it moved to Madrid to enter the collection of King Philip II. Each known address that was once home to the painting is marked and numbered sequentially, so you can easily follow its path from Europe to America.

Screenshot of Mapping Paintings, showing the migration of Titian’s “Europa” (screenshot via mapping paintings.org)

Cranston created the platform because she hadn’t seen anything similar available to art historians, her target user base. It emerged from her first project, Mapping Titian, which focused only on the Italian painter’s works. One particularly neat feature of Mapping Paintings is that it lets you filter through its database and overlay the paths of selected artworks on one map. So you can compare how different pieces by the same artist have traveled or where artworks currently owned by the same museum came from.

“I think that it’s important to visualize this information,” Cranston told Hyperallergic. “Provenance information is in printed catalogues and on some museum websites, but visualizing the movement of these artworks allows users to recognize their objecthood and also not to get bogged down in concerns about authenticity and pedigree that often come with provenance information.  Sometimes seeing that an artwork went somewhere unexpected is more impactful than reading it in a long list of text.”

Besides contributing new individual entries to the database, users can also publish what the site deems a “project” — a custom-made map tracking the movement of any number of artworks whose images you upload and whose provenances you enter yourself. All projects are sent to an administrator for review; only those that are accepted as accurate will be added to the online library.

Currently, the vast majority of works on Mapping Paintings — which is funded by Boston University and the Kress Foundation — arrive from its Titian-centric forebear, with Cranston drawing data from catalogues and museum websites. Works from the Kress Collection, which contains over 3,000 works of European art, will join the platform next, with the upload possibly completed by early fall. While Cranston created the website primarily with academics and curators in mind, she also hopes members of the general public will explore its records, which reveal information that museums don’t often highlight.

“I think that many visitors to museums don’t realize that these artworks had interesting lives before they arrived on the museum walls, and it’s neat to think about what these artworks witnessed and who else saw them,” Cranston said. “It deepens the viewing experience and brings history to life.”

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