Gavin Goodwin, Creative Arts Librarian
Mount Allison University
Produced by the RKD – Netherlands Institute for Art History, RKDartists& makes up one part of the institute’s digital search platform, RKD Explore. Launched in 2014 and offering over 380,000 records at the time of review, the freely accessible database provides a comprehensive and authoritative resource for biographical information on Dutch and foreign artists from the Middle Ages to the present day.
While the ampersand in the database name may be confusing at first glance, it signifies that the scope goes beyond only artists, with biographical information for art dealers, art collectors, and art historians. The database features international artists, with a heavy emphasis on artists of the Low Countries. A faceted search by location reveals Amsterdam, The Hague, and Antwerp have the most hits. Likewise, “painter” is the most frequent qualification, while “oil paint” is far ahead of other medium/technique terms. Despite this slant towards Dutch artists and artistic styles, the sheer number of artists featured means those interested in art from outside the Netherlands can still find worthwhile information.
RKDartists&’s extensive controlled vocabulary is a major strength, covering places, nationality, artist qualifications, medium/technique, artistic subject and movement, and institutional or association affiliations. The controlled vocabulary utilizes terms from major thesauri like the Getty Art & Architecture Thesaurus as well as regionally significant terms. The result is a robust and flexible thesaurus. Given the extent of the controlled vocabulary, a more user-friendly method of browsing the hierarchy would be helpful; clicking terms within a record opens a browsable pop-up window, but it is cumbersome and not easily navigated.
Most metadata is derived from the RKD’s library and archives, and as such some records feature a greater amount of detail than others. For example, Vincent van Gogh’s entry is as extensive as the accompanying documentation at the leading Dutch art history institute would suggest. Other artist entries are much less developed. Depending on the nationality of an artist, alternative resources may offer more information.
Perhaps the greatest strength of RKDartists& is the integration with other RKD databases, like images, portraits, and the library and archives. The crosswalks between databases allows users to view artworks directly from biographical entries, or to search the RKD’s library and archives for resources about an artist.
RKDartists& is available in both Dutch and English and generally the translation is excellent. One area which could pose problems are Dutch-specific spellings not adapted for English (e.g., Den Haag vs. The Hague; Parijs vs. Paris) though these minor differences did not pose major barriers during review. More significantly, scope notes for controlled vocabulary terms are not always translated, particularly those specific to the Low Countries.
While RKDartists& might be most useful for those consulting the physical collection of RKD, the wealth of authoritative data in addition to an interactive map of places of birth, death, and artistic activity, makes the database a helpful reference tool. The inclusion of many contemporary artists makes this database useful for uncovering new artists who might otherwise be difficult to discover. Additionally, integration with the RKD archival resources allows easy discoverability of primary sources. Beyond artists alone, the inclusion of art dealers, collectors, and historians opens new research opportunities and the robust controlled vocabulary allows RKDartists& to be used as a thesaurus for other cultural heritage institutions.
While other name authority databases like the Getty Union List of Artist Names or the Virtual International Authority Files offer similar biographical data, the true strengths of RKDArists& come from its accessible and attractive interface, flexibility in search with facets like medium, location, or product, and the deep integration with the other RKD databases; as such, its full potential is realized when considering RKDArtists& as part of the larger RKD Explore platform rather than as a siloed resource. Large amounts of biographical and historical information are still housed in physical format in the Netherlands, but RKDArtists& allows discovery of otherwise difficult to uncover connections between entities without needing to consult primary resources as well as offering access to the growing catalog of digital resources made available through RKD Explore.