Is a painting a primary source?
If the painting originated at the time it depicts, then it is a primary source. For instance, Da Vinci's Mona Lisa is a primary source because it is the most famous art piece of the Renaissance period. Works of art, in general, are considered primary sources. However, in some cases, paintings are considered secondary sources.
If the painting was not created under the time it reflects, then it is a secondary source. The mocking replica of the Mona Lisa by Marcel Duchamp in 1919 is a good example. Duchamp painted the Mona Lisa from his perspective and gave it a new definition. When researching about Mona Lisa, Duchamp's work would be considered a secondary source because he took the original primary source and added some hairy details to give it a new meaning.
At the same time, Duchamp reveals an ambiguity of gender within Leonardo's aesthetic. If the scope of the research was about androgynous paintings of the early 20th century, then L.H.O.O.Q. can be used as a primary source.
Similarly, if you were to research iconic paintings of the Dada movement, L.H.O.O.Q. would be an ideal example. Duchamp’s revolutionary version of the Mona Lisa checks all the boxes of Dadaism, making the painting a primary source for such research. Depending on the angle you take of a painting, it can either be a primary or secondary source.
To find art-related primary sources online, you can try some of these databases:
- The Archives of American Art in Washington, D.C.
- Online Archive of California (OAC)
- Digital Scriptorium (image database of medieval and renaissance manuscripts)
How to cite a painting
The citation style used will determine the exact citation format. This is how you would cite the above painting in APA:
Duchamp, M. (1919). L.H.O.O.Q., Mona Lisa with moustache. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA, US. https://www.wikiart.org/en/marcel-duchamp/l-h-o-o-q-mona-lisa-with-moustache-1919
Instead of worrying about the correct format of your citation in any given citation style, you can use a reference manager like Paperpile to automatically and correctly generate your citation for you:
Frequently Asked Questions about paintings as primary sources
🖼️ Is a photo of a painting a secondary source?
Photos are first-hand accounts of events or objects; therefore, they are primary sources. A photo of an original painting is considered a primary source.
🎨 Is a painting a secondary source?
Works of art, in general, are considered primary sources. However, in some cases, paintings are considered secondary sources. If the painting was not created under the time it reflects, then it is a secondary source. The mocking replica of the Mona Lisa by Marcel Duchamp in 1919 is a good example of a painting considered a secondary source.
🧛♀️ Is the Mona Lisa a primary source?
Yes, the Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci is a primary source since it is the original work of art.
🌚 Is the Starry Night by Van Gogh a primary source?
Yes, the Starry Night by Van Gogh is a primary source since it is the original work of art.
✏️ Is a drawing a primary or secondary source?
Drawings can be both, a primary or secondary source. A drawing is mostly a primary source, but only if the artist was an eyewitness and it originated at the time it depicts.