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Art and Art History (UNH Durham)

What Are Primary Sources in Art?

A primary source is "first-hand" information, or sources as close as possible to the origin of the information or idea under study.

An actual work of art, whether a painting or a building, is a primary source. Books written by the artist, such as a journal/diary/autobiography/letters are primary sources, as are newspaper and magazine articles written by someone who attended an opening or a talk by an artist. Books and articles written by friends and associates during the artist's lifetime would also be primary sources. 

Primary sources are contrasted with secondary sources, which are works that provide analysis, commentary, or criticism on the primary source.  Reviews of art exhibits and events can be found in newspapers and some older magazines.


Selected Online Primary Source Collections

Archives of American Art Research Collections

125+ of the collections have been scanned, most others are available to borrow on microfilm; Oral History Interviews - descriptions and transcripts; Image Gallery (digitized photos, sketches & documents)

Artists' Books Online

An online repository of facsimiles, metadata, and criticism. From University of Virginia.

Stories Of The Italian Artists From Vasari (1908)

Published around 1550, Vasari wrote some of the first biographies of many famous Italian artists. This is the 1913 English translation by E. L. Seeley. Vasari is an important resource because he knew some of the artists personally, and at least lived during the same era as many of the others. He is particularly proud of his friendship with Michelangelo, but he never met many of the artists and is content to tell legends about them that he heard second-hand.

Digital Scriptorium

An image database of medieval and renaissance manuscripts that unites scattered resources from many institutions into an international tool for teaching and scholarly research. Presently viewable on the DS website are records for 5,300 manuscripts and for 24,300 images.

Library of Congress  American Memory: Historical Collections for the National Digital Library

Primary source and archival materials covering topics such as art and architecture, performing arts, technology and applied sciences. Millions of digital items from more than 100 historical Library of Congress collections.

Perseus Digital Library

Digital library of resources for the study of the ancient world. Originally begun with coverage of the Archaic and Classical Greek world, has now expanded to Latin text and tools, Renaissance materials, and Papyri. Contains hundreds of texts by the major ancient authors and lexica and morphological databases and catalog entries for over 2,800 vases, sculptures, coins, buildings, and sites

EuroDocs: Online Sources for European History

These open access sources are readily available to all -- without fees or subscriptions.

Links connect to European primary historical documents that are transcribed, reproduced in facsimile, or translated. In addition you will find video or sound files, maps, photographs or other imagery, databases, and other documentation. The sources cover a broad range of historical happenings (political, economic, social and cultural). The order of documents is chronological wherever possible, including over 13,000 photographs of such objects.

New York Public Library Digital Collection

Spanning a wide range of historical eras, geography, and media, NYPL Digital Collections offers drawings, illuminated manuscripts, maps, photographs, posters, prints, rare illustrated books, videos, audio, and more. Encompassing the subject strengths of the vast collections of The Library, these materials represent the applied sciences, fine and decorative arts, history, performing arts, and social sciences.

Historical Newspapers

Current Newspapers