Using Google Art Project I created a collection which provides a varied selection of artistic representation of… drumroll… sheep and shepherds. I began as simply as possible by simply searching for ‘sheep’ in all of the galleries, which resulted in 256 hits across various museums. As I scrolled through the images, I found a wide variety of artwork: some showed a herd of animals, others showed animals with one or more human caretaker(s), some showed sheep being sheared (say that 5 times fast). Very quickly I was able to identify several categories of depiction that characterized most of the artwork.
- Landscapes: sheep are often included in landscape portraits to show an idyllic rural setting, or perhaps a pleasant village seen.
- Portraits of solitude: a lone shepherd with his flock is often used as a symbol of isolation and reflection. This is often related to the next genre…
- Biblically-inspired imagery: shepherds are featured in the bible as caring and loyal figures. Many biblical heroes are shepherds, and Christ himself is often referred to as ‘the good shepherd.’ For this reason, many Christian works of art feature shepherds as subjects.
- The shepherd’s work: most interesting to me, some artworks show the act of shearing. These works are more concerned with the human side of pastoralism, rather than focusing on the landscape or on the isolation and reflective nature of the work.
For my own research, this was a useful exercise that allowed me to mentally organize some of the prevalent notions about sheep in European culture. The same ideas present in popular artworks were present in the minds of European settlers in South Africa who were considering a pastoral career. The ability to browse such a large collection of related items quickly made this connection readily apparent.
In the classroom, I would use Google Art Project for this exact purpose. By browsing the search results for any given topic, the student can begin to form ideas about that topic’s place in the world of art. I would ask them to make observations about the periods and places in which their topic is strongly represented, as well as to note where topical artwork is currently held. Then the students would be asked to make more nuanced observations, such as patterns in style and tone. It would be great if an entire project gallery could be imported into a program similar to Shi Jian: Time, to identify patterns in color, light, point of view, and other stylistic elements.
The metadata provided by Google Art Project is very helpful for both research and educational use. The item descriptions are detailed, and the rights information is very readily available. I would feel comfortable directing students to Google Art Project for this reason – the project could even be used to teach students about image rights and how to properly identify and cite images which are available for use.
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