The Dimensions of Art

Some good soul on reddit posted a link to a very neat dataset: Metadata from the Tate CollectionThe files contain lots of interesting bits of information, but one particularly stood out to me: the dimensions of every piece of art that the Tate owns.

A major caveat: a lot of the art is 3D and has a 3rd dimension I'm not considering (e.g. sculpture). For your thoughtful viewing pleasure, here is the distribution of the aspect ratios for 65k pieces of artwork held by the Tate as a function of their width

Art dimensions, a technical view

Pixel color (light to dark) indicates density of pieces. There are some interesting clumps in this space, here are some thoughts:

1. On the whole, people prefer to make 4x3 artwork. 

This may largely be driven by stock canvas sizes available from art suppliers.

2. There are more tall pieces than wide pieces.

I find this fascinating, and speculate it may be due to portraits and paintings.

3. People are using the Golden Ratio.

Despite any obvious basis for its use, there are clumps for both wide and tall pieces at the so-called "Golden Ratio", approximately 1:1.681 (as a tribute, that's the ratio I rendered the above figure at)

Art becomes data becomes art

What I learned very quickly after producing the first figure is that nobody understands it. Even though it's very information rich and accurate, I'm violating a basic rule of data visualization: make it understandable! People gave me lots of feedback saying they couldn't wrap their heads around the figure, and I did almost nothing to break it down...

Because this is art, I felt compelled to re-visualize this into something more... visceral. Here is the same data (for art up to 3m x 3m), with each piece represented as a thin wire box.

Play along at home

If you'd like to play with this data and make your own version of these figures, I have replicated (nearly) the figures from this blog post in an IPython notebook, which is up on GitHub! (link to notebook).


  1. Visceral indeed. Seems almost to be pulsing.

  2. Back in the day (before art supply stores ;-) I had supposed that artists purchased canvas and then cut it to the desired shape - the data here definitely suggests that either canvas was pre-cut or there was some other reason from adopting the 4:3 ratio. Though conceivably if Turner's sketch books were in that ratio that could be skewing the data (see and the comments there in re: Turner's influence in the Tate collection.)

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  4. Could you offer any pointers on how you made the latter ire box visualization? I've been playing around with a big table of data about public artworks (including dimensions) and I've been curious to visualize the relative sizes of the sculptures and monuments.

    1. Eli, have a look at this.

      I used it with the Finnish National Gallery data. It's a Python script that takes opens an XML file and finds the widths and heights (get_sizes_from_xml()). It then takes these numbers and plots them using plot_sizes().

      You might be able to use that as a starting point, or get in touch if you'd like a hand.

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  5. I had a play with data from the Finnish National Gallery and got results like this from 24,000 artworks:

    The mean and mode longest/shortest ratios are 1.424 and 1.455.

    Likewise, more are taller than wider: 12.2k taller, 10.8k wider, 472 square.


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