Take Note

An exploration of note-taking in Harvard University Collections

Making Pictorial Notes

Susan Dackerman

Note taking is not only a textual practice, it also involves the transcription and generation of information and ideas through visual imagery. Upon seeing Cellini’s sculpture of Perseus Holding the Head of Medusa in Florence, John Singer Sargent notated the encounter by making a graphite drawing of the bronze within its architectural setting. While the sketch cursorily describes the sculpture’s form, written annotations in the lower left augment the image by providing information about the play of light. The artist also conveyed these effects pictorially but must have wanted to emphasize and remember them. Henri-Edmund Cross’s sketchbooks also demonstrate how written and visual notes can be merged. His pencil sketches include textual notations of colors as well as the application of those colors for further clarification. Artists were not the only ones to combine words and images. The philosopher and psychologist William James’s diaries contain both written and pictorial portrayals of his time in Brazil, and the diary of A. E. Verrill incorporates graphic sketches of specimens, alongside his notes.

Arthur Pope’s lecture notes on color theory indicate the limits of describing particular visual experiences through text and diagram. One assumes that the lecture was accompanied by images, as suggested by the notes taken by his student, Perry Rathbone. The sketches Rathbone made for class help visualize Pope’s theories by including a chart of the colors of the visible light spectrum and a painted still-life study that demonstrates the application of color theory.

Published descriptions of artworks also are enhanced by manuscript annotations, as is evident in Edward Forbes’s copy of a Berlin auction catalogue. Listed for sale are various woodcuts from Hans Holbein’s Dance of Death series. Next to the titles are graphite marks, including what appears to be grading system of the quality of the prints. Das Altweyb, or the Old Woman and Death (# 1454), received an “A” rating, thus justifying its purchase for the Harvard Art Museums.

These examples suggest that together written and drawn notes sometimes tell a more thorough story than either does on its own. It’s interesting to think about how the two modes interrelate. Is one usually primary, with the other serving a supporting role, or are they typically equivalent in value? It there is a hierarchy, is it determined by the disposition of the note taker? Is certain information better conveyed visually than textually, and vice versa? With pencil, pen, or brush in hand, it seems many are inclined towards taking notes in a variety of forms.