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Art Through Time: A Global View

History and Memory Compare: When It Comes to Art, How Do We Define Historical Accuracy?

American Marines Raising American Flag on Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima

American Marines Raising American Flag on Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima
Artist / Origin: Rosenthal, Joe (American, 1911–2006)
Region: North America
Date: 1945
Period: 1900 CE – 2010 CE
Material: Gelatin silver print
Medium: Prints, Drawings, and Photography
Credit: © Corbis / Bettmann

Surrender of Breda

Surrender of Breda
Artist / Origin: Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (Spanish, 1599–1660)
Region: Europe
Date: 1634–35
Period: 1400 CE – 1800 CE
Material: Oil on canvas
Medium: Painting
Dimensions: H: 121 in. (307 cm.), W: 144 ½ in. (367 cm.)
Location: Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain
Credit: Courtesy of Art Resource, NY/Photo by Erich Lessing

When it comes to art, how do we define historical accuracy?

We often think of history painting in terms of events long past, but current events are also depicted in images, preserving a record for the future. The relationship between the actual event and the images that document them is always questionable, but even more so when there are living eyewitnesses to the scene portrayed. Both Rosenthal’s photograph from Iwo Jima and Velázquez’s Surrender of Breda visually powerful images that offer much simpler takes on actual history than those who lived through the events experienced.

Questions to Consider

  • Each of these images was created not long (relatively speaking) after the event depicted took place. How do you think an image created soon after an event might differ from one produced with greater hindsight? What would be the advantages and disadvantages of each?
  • How does each of these images relate to the event it depicts? What do you think was more important in each case—“accurate” documentation of the event in question or the conveyance of a specific message through the representation of the event? What does this suggest about the purpose each image was meant to serve? Do you think these images fulfilled their original functions?
  • Many people tend to think about photographs as more “realistic” or “true” to events than painting or other art forms. Do you think this is an accurate assessment? Why or why not?

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Art Through Time: A Global View


Produced by THIRTEEN in association with WNET.ORG. 2009.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-888-2