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Comparing Photojournalism and European Paintings at Cleveland Museum of Art

It is almost an automatic response for people to reach for their smartphones anytime something interesting or beautiful takes place in front of them.

But before photography was invented, view painters in 18 th century Europe captured celebrations and catastrophes on canvas. The artists provided an idea of what life was like roughly 300 years ago.

A new exhibit at Cleveland Museum of Art, Eyewitness Views: Making History in Eighteenth-Century Europe, presents some of their work. 

“You would have written descriptions in people’s diaries or occasionally in newspapers, but it was really these paintings, and engravings made after them, that would distribute the image to a wider public,” said Betsy Wieseman, museum curator of European paintings and sculptures.

These paintings are visual recordings of history, but the artists were not necessarily committed to “just the facts” the way photojournalists strive to document moments in time today.

I asked the former director of photojournalism at Kent State, David LaBelle, to join the curator and me at the museum exhibit to compare photojournalism today and view painting in the 1700s.

Carrie Wise is the deputy editor of arts and culture at Ideastream Public Media.