Himalayan Art Resources

Subject: Dating of Art

Art History Main Page

Subjects, Topics & Types:
1. Region & Style
2. Inscriptions
3. Deity Iconography
4. Historical Figures
5. Collections

Dating is an important aspect of Himalayan art history. Placing art objects and site locations within a chronology allows for the study of the relationship between those objects and further allows comparison with bordering regions and local styles. Region and style are the two most important and general considerations. Inscriptions are the most definitive and precise method of dating when available. Identifying deity iconography and historical figures is more nuanced and requires considerable knowledge of the subject of the artwork. Owners of collections when they supply the images can be very strict about the dates affixed to works of art. The methods of dating for painting and sculpture are essentially the same, but sculpture can be more difficult with variables in region and style along with later copies of earlier works and the imitating of the styles.

1. Region & Style

Styles are always changing but an artistic tradition within a region can last for several hundred years. The principal regions are North India, Swat, Kashmir, Nepal, Tibet, Northern China and Mongolia. Some of these regions only produced art for a certain measurable period of time such as the Pala period, Swat and Kashmir. Within these three regions are local styles created at different times which are analysed and studied through stylistic analysis. Nepal and Tibet have been creating art objects for over a millennium. Northern China and the Western Xia have been creating objects since slightly before the Yuan dynasty. Mongolia has primarily been creating objects since the 17th century. Each of these regions have their own indigenous styles, art traditions and internal periods of art development. (See the Regions and Styles Pages).

2. Inscriptions

Artworks of all kinds, painting, sculpture and murals can have inscriptions with specific or general dates, along with donor and artist information. Most works however are not inscribed, or if inscribed, not with a date. Paintings have a much larger surface area than sculpture and therefore have the potential for much more information being added. Figurative sculpture has very little space for inscriptions and generally when added it is inscribed around the lotus base in a clockwise fashion. Occasionally there are inscriptions written on the flat surface of the lotus base such as with Yongle inscribed sculpture, although not a precise date, it does specify that particular work to the reign of the Yongle emperor, 1402-1424, and so forth for other reigning emperors. (See the Inscriptions Main Page and Nepalese Dated Art).

3. Deity Iconography

Iconography can be applied to dating through textual studies. Iconography is primarily related to the study of deities and their iconic appearances. Those descriptions of deities are textually based and those texts can be dated in a general way when observing early figurative art and much more accurately dated when observing later Tibetan creations of the Nyingma 'Revealed Treasure' traditions. (See the Iconography Main Page).

4. Historical Figures

Early Indian and Tibetan teachers can be historical or semi-mythological. The historical teacher always exists in some fashion before a portrait is created. Representations of recognizable later teachers are therefore limited by their birth and death dates along with their rise in popularity. With paintings this becomes very important in dating via recognizing the secondary figures and lineage lists. A painting cannot be dated earlier than the last person depicted in a series of lineage teachers that descend from the primary teacher of the painting. (See the Portraits Page).

5. Collections

Since the 20th century dating of art can very much be influenced by the museum, institution or private collection where the objects reside. Sometimes when a museum provides images or image rights they could also insist that all information concerning a work of art only reflect their own dates as determined by their rights and reproductions department. The same also applies to images acquired from institutions and private collectors. Generally owners have no problem when the date of an object is judged to be earlier. In situations where the photographs of an artwork have been taken by the HAR team then there are no restrictions to the dating other than maintaining a cordial professional relationship with the owner, institution or museum. Therefore, on the HAR website there are some instances where a date is not provided rather than in the HAR staff's judgement the date is chronologically unreasonable. There are also many instances on the site where works have just not been fully catalogued or the HAR team has not yet determined a date.

Jeff Watt 4-2020