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Art History: Primary & Secondary Sources

Primary Sources

Primary sources are first hand accounts or direct evidence created by a witness about an event, object, or person. Some exapmles of primary sources include:

  • Artwork (painting, sculpture, print, performance piece, etc.)
  • Journals, Diaries, and Autobiographies
  • Correspondence or Letters
  • Interviews and Speeches
  • Photographs
  • Recordings (audio or visual)
  • Records (birth and death certificates, baptismal records, etc.

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources interpret and analyze a primary source. Secondary sources typically use quotes and reference primary sources and original pieces of art. The following are examples of secondary sources:

  • Biographies
  • Journal, Magazine and Newspaper Articles
  • Reviews
  • Books
  • Documentaries
  • Commentaries and Criticisms
  • Textbooks

Determing the Type Source

Determining if you have a primary or secondary source can be tricky. Sometimes the same source can be both primary and secondary. How do we tell the difference? First, you have to read the material to determine if it is primary or secondary. Also, how are you using the source will determine if it is primary or secondary.

Here is an example.

This is an exhibition catalog from an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art called Primitivism in 20th Century Art. This catalog documents the pieces that were on display in the exhibit, which would make it a primary source. This catalog accompanied the exhibit. It was meant to be read in conjunction with the exhibit. So it is part of the exhibit, it’s a piece of the whole.

However, the catalog also includes interpretive articles about the pieces by scholars at the time. Because scholars are interpreting artwork, it is a secondary source. But if we were looking at contemporary scholarship during the time of the exhibit, the the catalog would be a primary source.  

Evaluating Sources

The world is full of information, however not all of the information is useful or accurate. Evaluating your sources is an important step in the research process. It is the responsibility of the researcher to determine the value of the information. Use the following criteria to help you evaluate your sources.

Accuracy – An accurate source will be well researched, properly cited, facts documented, information verified in other sources, and the page will be well written.

Authority – The source identifies an author and their credentials and will be affiliated with a reputable institution.

Objectivity – Every source has an agenda, so be on the lookout for biases. Look to see if the author has clearly stated their goals.

Currency – The currency of a source is determined by the date of publication or the latest update. For websites, check if the links are working properly.

Coverage – A source with good coverage will compare information to other sources and will provide references.

Relevancy – If the content is appropriate for your research, then it is relevant. 


Using Sources - Triangulation


Now that you have all of these great sources, what do you do with them? Triangulation is a way of comparing and contrasting your information. You are using multiple sources to generate an answer to your research question. Using multiple sources creates a deeper understanding of your research topic. It also makes your research rich, comprehensive and well-developed.


Let’s take Frida Kahlo as an example. We have the painting Henry Ford Hospital, 1932 which depicts her experience with a miscarriage. It is a reflection of how she felt during this event in her life. If we look at her diary, it might paint a similar picture about this experience. Frida Kahlo also wrote letters that included information about this event. What does she say in the letters to her friends and family about this? What is written in her biography? Is the information similar or different? Through triangulation we are hoping to find some sort of truth or answer to our research question.