17 How to Read Primary Sources, Part II: Evaluating Non-written Primary Sources

introduction to non-written Primary Sources

Primary sources come in all shapes and sizes, which means that the way you go about interpreting them cannot be uniform.  Mostly, in non-written sources you need to be cognizant of visual and aural cues, of placement of subjects in a photograph, of silences in spoken or sung words. But you also have to know a bit about the technology that shapes the production of those sources.  You might think that nineteenth-century Americans were a dour lot, never smiling, if you were not aware of the fact that camera technology in that era enforced rigid stillness, and thus a cultural etiquette developed that discouraged getting caught with a frozen smile. To understand what a map means, you need to know about the conventions of cartography from the society that created it.  Artistic creations—paintings or films, for example—often concern historical events and people.  But keep in mind, they speak to the values of the artist’s moment, and do not necessarily offer accurate depictions of historical events.

To learn more about these exceptions, check out the essays at History Matters for insights from scholars that use these sources.

Here are some basic questions to consider when evaluating a non-written source:

  • Who (or what entity) created this source?   When and where?  What in the political and social milieu would have shaped the circumstances?
  • Who was the intended audience?
  • How was the source created? What were the technological circumstances? Has it been edited or altered since its original creation? If it is a reproduction, how faithful is it to the original?
  • For artistic creations, is it possible to discern the artists’ meaning?  Is it possible to discern what critics thought of its meaning?
  • Why does the source still exist? Who thought or thinks it important enough to save?

Paintings and Art

Given that the largest body of non-written primary sources come from the Art world, here are a few general guidelines to follow when “reading” a painting:

  • Subject:
    • What is the title of the work?
    • What is the work about (on the surface?)
    • Does the work purport to depict an specific individual, a scene, or an event from the past? If so, who was the person (or what transpired in the event/story?)
    • Why might the artist have selected that particular subject?
  •  Background and Context:
    • Who is the artist?
    • When and where did he or she paint the work in question?
    • With what style or school was the artist typically associated?
    • With what other works is it in conversation?
    • What cultural or historical matters may have influenced it?
    • What cultural or historical matters does it seem to be addressing?
  •  Composition (formal elements):
    • Medium. [Oil based, watercolors, collage, etc.] Why is the artist using this particular medium? What are its advantages? Its limitations?
    • Lines. Are the lines thick or thin? Largely vertical or horizontal? Straight or curved? What is achieved by this particular use of line?
    • Color. Is the color realistic or expressive? Warm or cool? Bright or muted? And to what effect?
    • Light. How is light used? How is shadow used? Is there any play between the two? What is communicated to the viewer?
    • Perspective. Where is the “center” of the art work? To what point on the canvas is your eye drawn when you gaze at the painting? Are the elements surrounding that point depicted in “naturalistic” fashion?
    • Space. What is the sense of space in the work you’ve chosen? Is there great depth, or is the visual plane shallow? How are the elements of the work configured in that space? How does the sense of space affect the subject matter? Affect your response to the work?
    • Composition. How do the various formal elements of the work interact? How does the composition convey the work’s theme or idea? How does the eye move across the piece? How does the composition control that movement?
    • Style. What elements of the composition work to constitute the artist’s style? The style of the period in which the artist was/is working?
  •  Thematics:
    • Who was the artist’s principal audience?
    • What message(s) do you believe the artist wanted to communicate to that audience?
    • To what degree do you believe the artist was successful?
Reading a Painting like a Text

“American Progress” by John Gast (1872)

For more information on analyzing visual sources consult Making Sense of Documentary Photography

Political Cartoons

Similar to art and paintings, political cartoons are also visual texts that can be “read” like paintings. While you can ask many of the same questions of a political cartoon as you would a painting, there are some key differences. While no one is an objective observer, political cartoonists are especially subjective, often using their cartoons to make fun of political opponents. It is then important to ask what political perspective is the cartoonist coming from and so who was their intended audience. Another element of political cartoons to be aware of is that more so than paintings, cartoons speak to current events (of the time) and the cartoonist assumes their audience would be aware of the events they depict. As such, a political cartoon should not be your primary, primary source but you should approach it after you have a decent grasp of the event, or time period the cartoon is referencing.  Below is an example of a political cartoon and the different elements.

“Columbia and her Suitors”



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How History is Made: A Student’s Guide to Reading, Writing, and Thinking in the Discipline Copyright © 2022 by Stephanie Cole; Kimberly Breuer; Scott W. Palmer; and Brandon Blakeslee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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