Tier 2: Context

Portions of the following text are taken from smarthistory.org, which is available for use under CC BY-NC-SA. Please see the citations at the bottom of the page for more information. The text has been adapted to more closely adhere to Chicago Manual of Style and Ensign College Style Guide. 

A contextual analysis examines the environment in which the work was produced, including time, place, and culture. In addition, context also refers to the place a work has in the history of its medium (e.g., oil portraiture). In this tier, we explore the things that might have influenced its production in any way, such as artistic practices, religion, patron, audience, location, economics, heritage, ownership, and so on. Let's see how this information might inform a viewer's understanding of an artwork. 

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We're in the Gemäldegalerie gallery in Berlin, and we're looking at Hans Holbein's portrait of Georg Gisze, a Hanseatic merchant. That's a lot of information, so here's what that means. The Hanseatic League was a group of merchants that, about 300 years before this portrait was made, got together and said, "We need to work together so that we can avoid pirates, so that we can avoid princes who wanted to take advantage of us," and this was a group that did a lot of business in London, and Georg Gisze is coming from Danzig, what is now Poland, and is working in an office in London, England. 

Hans Holbein painted many of the businessmen of the Hanseatic League. This was likely the first in a series of those portraits and perhaps Holbein was showing off about what he could do as a portraitist, hoping to get more business. There is something about the material nature of the objects and Holbein's ability to render them so exactly. It really speaks to this culture that is now paying attention to the wealth of objects. We think that this portrait was intended for his bride-to-be, and so there is this interest in veracity, not only in the likeness of the figure but also in the accouterments of his life that define him as a person in the world. 

It feels a little bit like his painting is more about the things in his office than it is about him. It's as if his identity is formed by his employee as a merchant. We see all the signs of how he does business, his letters, his contracts, his scissors, his pen, his stamps. At the same time, it's also a reminder that the material world is not all there is. 

That's right, and we actually see some explicit symbols relating to the notion of mortality and the passage of time. For instance, you had mentioned the tools of his business, and if we look in the very front of the painting, what we can see a quill. We can see money in a small metal container. We can see some of the unused ceiling wax in that little red stick on the extreme right, and then there's a small clock, and the clock, of course, is an expression of a certain degree of wealth, but also a businessman's concern with time, but it also has a moral dimension, as mentioned, and this is about the passage of time, the passage of life and that that idea is made even more strongly if we look at that beautiful glass Venetian vase that is so transparent and is so beautifully depicted by Holbein. 

Those carnations, in the fragile glass vase that they're in, are a momentum worry, a reminder of death, of the fragility of life, and not only that, but of the insignificance of these activities, these day-to-day things that one does to make money and get somewhere in the world. And yet those are the things that are really being emphasized, so there's an inherent contradiction here. There's a reminder of the transience of the things that are here being celebrated and it is a wonderful kind of contradiction. It's a wonderful kind of tangle that clearly the artist and the patron were fully aware of.

When coming up with questions about these artworks, it can be helpful to try to put yourself in the shoes of the contemporary viewer. Consider experiencing the work during the time it was created. While it is impossible to do this accurately, it can still help you distance the artwork from your own experience and consider how it was originally received. Let's look at one more example of how contextual analysis works. 

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We're in the Prado in Madrid, and we're looking at Albrecht Durer's self-portrait from 1498, where he shows himself, for me, almost like a dandy. He painted this when he was 26, and that's what the inscription says below the window. You can see that he's proud of his looks and proud of his clothes, and mostly proud of how he could paint.

It's so interesting because he is creating himself here. But he's representing himself, not only in terms of his likeness, not only in terms of the class that he's aspiring to, not only in terms of his representation of his own aesthetics in terms of his choice of costume, but he's representing himself as a painter as well, right? As a craftsman, as somebody who is extraordinarily capable. And yet, at the same time, he's also negating that very ability by rendering himself not in the guise of an artist, of a workman, but wearing actually incredibly expensive kid gloves and very much not in a workshop environment, but as if he were a nobleman.

I mean, it's important to remember that when an artist paints a self-portrait, he's actually probably looking in a mirror. And you know, he's got paint. He's got brushes in his hands. And he's in his studio, and he's painting. So there's a real conscious decision to remove those things and to show himself in another way. And so the hands are completely fabricated. And yet, in some ways, this is still very much, for me, tied to his identity as an artist. I think he's not only representing himself, but he's representing his abilities—in a sense, a kind of portfolio piece. Laying claim to art as something that is intellectual. Ah, see, that's the key, right? This notion that painting is, in fact, as you said, an intellectual activity, not just the work of a craftsman, of a cabinet maker. But something which happens in the artist's mind, and therefore, worthy of a different kind and level of respect. And I think that's very much here.

The following are some questions to ask to help this process: 


Consider the logistics of the piece by thinking about questions such as (but not limited to) these:

  • Who owned it (provenance)? 
  • What was required of the artist in order to produce this work (i.e. how much time did they dedicate to it, how difficult was it to produce, etc)? 
  • What was its intended use (entertainment, beauty, memorialization, contemplation, etc.)? 
  • Where was it displayed and who spent time around it? 


Consider the economics of the work by thinking about questions such as (but not limited to) these:

  • Was this work commissioned? Who paid for its production?
  • Was it valuable in its time? Is it valuable now? 
  • What can you find out about its purchasing price?


Consider the aesthetics of the work by thinking about questions such as (but not limited to) these:

  • How does the work compare to other works of its time? 
  • How does the work compare to other works in the same medium throughout history?
  • Did viewers of the work have a reaction to it at the time of its first exhibition (reception)?
  • Did the reception (the way viewers valued it) of the work change throughout time? 

Social Implications

Consider the social implications of the work by thinking about questions such as (but not limited to) these:

  • Did the work contribute to the social status of the owner? The artist? 
  • Does it convey a message about the thoughts or lives of the artist, owner, commissioner, or viewer? 
  • Does the work communicate the class structure of its culture? How? 

Gender-Based Connotations

Consider the gender-based connotations by thinking about questions such as (but not limited to) these:

  • Does it represent a specific gender? 
  • Was it intended for a specific gender?
  • What can that tell us about the gender dynamics in the culture in which it was produced?
Previous Citation(s)
Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Hans Holbein the Younger, The Merchant Georg Gisze," in Smarthistory, November 28, 2015, accessed July 3, 2023, https://smarthistory.org/hans-holbein-the-younger-the-merchant-georg-gisze/ and Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Albrecht Dürer, Self-Portrait (1498)," in Smarthistory, November 18, 2015, accessed July 3, 2023, https://smarthistory.org/durer-self-portrait-1498/.

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