Data Discoveries: Completing the Picture of Artists in the Photoarchive

Wikidata is a public collaborative digital knowledge base that stores the structured data for its counterpart projects from the Wikimedia Foundation, such as Wikipedia, Wikimedia Commons, and Wiktionary. Many of these sites store information on works of art, artists, and scholarly resources represented in the Frick Art Reference Library. While most of us know and use Wikipedia regularly, we might not be aware of Wikidata and how it structures the relationships between Wikipedia articles. Wikidata consists of “items,” which can represent topics, concepts, objects, places, and people. As a recent practicum student in the Frick Art Reference Library, one of my projects entailed making connections between information from the Photoarchive and Wikidata to make the library’s resources more accessible through Internet research.

The Photoarchive is a study collection of about 1.2 million photographic reproductions of works of art from the fourth to the mid-twentieth century. Library staff, including Metadata Lead Karly Wildenhaus and Acquisitions Lead Mary Seem, have been working to connect basic biographical data from the Photoarchive to Wikidata, matching artists’ names found in our collections to preexisting Wikidata items, or creating new items for artists where one does not yet exist. The ultimate goal of the project is to increase access to and discoverability of the more than 42,000 artist files in the library’s collection. By enhancing the available information on these artists through Wikidata, the library can support new kinds of digital research methods, including the construction of data queries that help identify thousands of artists that are lesser known or under-documented for further investigation.

My favorite aspect of working on this project is that I was able to tailor it to my own research interests. During my practicum, I was completing my B.A. in Art History and French Language and Literature with a concentration in nineteenth-century French art, so I was eager to put both my French and art history skills to work. Karly, Mary, and I were able to narrow down the list of over 42,000 artists in the Photoarchive to just those 5,398 artists who are identified as French, focusing on artists who hadn’t yet been matched to a Wikidata item or had sparse information available.

“By enhancing the available information on these artists through Wikidata, the library can help researchers identify thousands of lesser-known or under-documented artists.”

Typically the only information listed about artists in the Photoarchive is name, regional “school” (eg. French School), and any known life dates (birth, death, or years active). In Wikidata, some of these artists had extensive entries, while in other cases no Wikidata item existed at all. I was able to use French-language resources with information on these artists to enhance their Wikidata items—such as missing birth and death years, where they studied and with whom, and in what collections their works are located today—in order to make their biographical information more complete and searchable.

Screenshots of web information on artist Marie Perrier. Clockwise from top right: Benezit Dictionary of Artists, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Musée d'Orsay, and the Frick Art Reference Library online catalog
Screenshots of French artist Marie Perrier (1864–1941) represented in the Frick Art Reference Library’s catalog; the Musée d’Orsay’s online database; the Benezit Dictionary of Artists; and the catalog for the 1899 Paris Salon in the digital repository of the Bibliothèque nationale de France

While working on this project, I came across an artist named Marie Perrier in the Photoarchive catalog. The only information we had available in the catalog was that she was active in 1899, and when I searched her name in Wikidata, I found that the artist did not have an item. However, some information existed on an artist named Marie Perrier on both the Musée d’Orsay website and in the Benezit Dictionary of Artists, so I started digging. Luckily, I was able to confirm that the Marie Perrier found in the Photoarchive matches the artist of the same name in these other databases.

From her Benezit article, I learned that Perrier was the student of well-known nineteenth-century artists Benjamin Constant (1845–1902), Jules Lefebvre (1836–1911), and Jean-Paul Laurens (1838–1921). Interestingly, when you Google search Constant, Lefebvre, and Laurens, many relevant pages can be found, including their Wikipedia pages, which are the first results for each. For Perrier, however, the first four hits are all unrelated: Instagram and Facebook profiles and the Wikipedia page of a twentieth-century French singer. So, I asked myself, why is so little known about Perrier yet so much information exists on her teachers, all of whom were male?

The Palais (or Galerie) des Machines, where Perrier exhibited a painting in the 1899 Paris Salon, depicted in a vintage postcard published by CLC N°528. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Using Perrier’s active date from our record, 1899, I found her mentioned in the catalog for the 1899 Paris Salon at the Palais des Machines, which notes that Perrier displayed a painting titled Le Déjeuner à l’école primaire communale. Furthermore, I used the names of her teachers mentioned in Benezit to lead me to a collection of letters in the Getty Research Institute Digital Collections written by various artists to Louis Prétet, an administrator at the Commissaire des Beaux-Arts, the Société des Artistes Français, and the Paris Salon.

“I asked myself, why is so little known about Perrier yet so much information exists on her teachers, all of whom were male?”

Within the collection, not only are there two letters written by Perrier’s teacher Jules Lefebvre, but also a separate letter from painter Jean Béraud (1849–1935) that mentions Perrier. Béraud recommends that Prétet look into two “excellent” works by Mlle Marie Perrier, “who is an artist of the future,” even mentioning her Déjeuner à l’école primaire communale. Finally, although our French School holdings have not yet been fully digitized, I was able to work with on-site library staff to verify that the artworks reproduced in Perrier’s file aligned with her known works, including Le Déjeuner à l’école primaire communale.

Marie Perrier (French, 1864–1941), Le Déjeuner à l’école primaire communale [or Déjeuner (École primaire)], 1899. Reproduction: Frick Art Reference Library Photoarchive

With the information from the 1899 exhibition catalog and the letter to Prétet, I was able to collect enough information to create a new Wikidata item for Perrier. In order to include as much information as possible, I looked further into her painting, Le Déjeuner à l’école primaire communale (1899), which seems to be one of the few known works by the artist. The National Museum of Education in Rouen, France, displays an engraving based on the painting with the artists listed as Marie Perrier and Charles Baude (1853–1935), both of whom signed the work. The engraving was printed in Le Petit Parisien, a French newspaper that ran from 1876 to 1944. Notably, a relatively complete and extensive Wikidata item already existed for Charles Baude.

So, while her teachers and counterparts, all of whom were male, already had existing Wikidata items full of information, Marie Perrier now has a Wikidata item of her own based on information I was able to string together from primary French resources. This item allows anyone researching online to more easily find Perrier, to visualize the data available on her, and to connect her to information about her contemporaries and to resources at the Frick.

Visualization of information about Marie Perrier, a selection of the data on the artist now represented in Wikidata. Courtesy of Wikidata Query Service

Perrier is just one example of the many lesser-known artists documented in the Frick Art Reference Library’s collections who can be made more discoverable through the compilation of all of these bits of information into Wikidata. While the web offers us a whole host of valuable resources, the picture is not always complete. The library’s efforts to connect and expand upon the available information in Wikidata will undoubtedly create innumerable opportunities for further research and discovery. In the past few weeks alone I have added to and created hundreds of items for artists in the Photoarchive, and while there are thousands of artists left to research, our work has already had an impact. As the project continues, data about artists from around the world represented in our collections will become more comprehensive, allowing for a more accurate and accessible picture of the artists in the Photoarchive.

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