Art History

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Venus de Milo on display at the Louvre

Art history is the academic study of objects of art in their historical development and stylistic contexts, i.e. genre, design, format, and look. "Art History". WordNet Search - 3.0, Moreover, art history generally is the research of artists and their cultural and social contributions.[1]

As a term, Art history (also history of art) encompasses several methods of studying the visual arts; in common usage referring to the study of works of art and architecture. The definition is, however, wide-ranging, with aspects of the discipline overlapping upon art criticism and art theory. Ernst Gombrich observed that "the field of art history [is] much like Caesar's Gaul, divided in three parts inhabited by three different, though not necessarily hostile tribes: (i) the connoisseurs, (ii) the critics, and (iii) the academic art historians".[1] Works of art criticism and of art theory frequently have been the pivots upon which the understanding of art history has turned.

As a discipline, art history is distinguished from art criticism, which is concerned with establishing a relative artistic value upon individual works with respect to others of comparable style, or sanctioning an entire style or movement; and art theory, which is concerned with the fundamental nature of art, and is more related to aesthetics and determining the essence of beauty, i.e. artistic appeal. Technically, art history is not these things, because the art historian uses historical method to answers the questions: How did the artist come to create the work? Who were the patrons? Who were his or her teachers? Who were his or her disciples? What historical forces shaped the artist's oeuvre and How did he or she and the creation, in turn, affect the course of artistic, political, and social events?


Art history is a relatively new academic enterprise, beginning in the nineteenth century.[2] Whereas the analysis of historical trends in, for example, politics, literature, and the sciences, benefits from the clarity and portability of the written word, art historians rely on formal analysis, iconology, semiotics (structuralism, post-structuralism, and deconstruction), psychoanalysis and iconography;[3] as well as primary sources and reproductions of artworks as a springboard of discussion and study.[4] Advances in photographic reproduction and printing techniques after World War II increased the ability of reproductions of artworks accurately. Nevertheless the appreciation and study of the visual arts has been a area of research for many over the millennia. The definition of art history reflects the dichotomy within art; i.e., art as history and in anthropological context; and art as a study in forms.

The study of visual art can be approached through the broad categories of contextualism and formalism.[5][6][7][8] They are described as:

  • Contextualism
    The approach whereby a work of art is examined in the context of its time; in a manner which respects its creator's motivations and imperatives; with consideration of the desires and prejudices of its patrons and sponsors; with a comparative analysis of themes and approaches of the creator's colleagues and teachers; and consideration of religious iconography and temporal symbolism. In short, this approach examines the work of art in the context of the world within which it was created.
  • Formalism
    The approach whereby the artwork is examined through an analysis of its form; that is, the creator's use of line, shape, color, texture, and composition. This approach examines how the artist uses a two-dimensional picture plane (or the three dimensions of sculptural or architectural space) to create his or her art. A formal analysis can further describe art as representational or non-representational; which answers the question, is the artist imitating an object or image found in nature? If so, it is representational. The closer the art hews to perfect imitation, the more the art is realistic. If the art is less imitation and more symbolism, or in an important way strives to capture nature's essence, rather than imitate it directly, the art is abstract. Impressionism is an example of a representational style that was not directly imitative, but strove to create an "impression" of nature. Of course, realism and abstraction exist on a continuum. If the work is not representational of nature, but an expression of the artist's feelings, longings and aspirations, or his or her search for ideals of beauty and form, the work is non-representational or a work of expressionism.[9]

Historical development

The ancient world

The earliest surviving writing on art that can be classified as art history are the passages in Pliny the Elder's Natural History concerning the development of Greek sculpture and painting. From them it is possible to trace the ideas of Xenokrates of Sicyon, a Greek sculptor who was perhaps the first art historian. As a result, Pliny's work, while mainly an encyclopaedia of the sciences, were disproportionately influential with respect to art from the Renaissance onwards, particularly the passages about the techniques used by the painter Apelles. Similar, though independent, developments occurred in 6th century China, where a canon of worthy artists was established by writers in the scholar-official class (who, being necessarily proficient in calligraphy, were artists themselves), and the Six Principles of Painting were formulated by Xie He.

The beginnings of modern art history

Self-portrait of Giorgio Vasari.
Portrait of Johann Joachim Winckelmann by Anton von Maron.

While personal reminiscences of art and artists have long been written and read (see Lorenzo Ghiberti for the best early example), it was Giorgio Vasari, the Tuscan painter, sculptor and author of "Lives of the Painters," who ushered in the era of the story of art as history, with emphasis on art's progression and development, a milestone in this field. His was a personal and a historical account, featuring biographies of individual Italian artists, many of whom were his contemporaries and personal acquaintances. The most renowned of these was Michelangelo, and Vasari's account is enlightening. Vasari's ideas about art held sway until the 18th century, when criticism was leveled at his peculiar style of history as the personal. Scholars such as Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768), criticised Vasari's "cult" of artistic personality, and argued that the real emphasis in the study of art belonged on the views of the learned beholder and not the unique viewpoint of the charismatic artist. Winckelmann's writings thus were the beginnings of art criticism. Winckelmann was famous for his critique of the artistic excesses of the Baroque and Rococo forms, and subsequently instrumental in reforming taste in favor of the more sober Neoclassicism, in a return to elemental Renaissance thinking. Jacob Burckhardt (1818 - 1897), one of the founders of art history, noted that Winckelmann was 'the first to distinguish between the periods of ancient art and to link the history of style with world history'. Incidentally, from Winckelmann until the early 20th century, the field of art history was dominated by German-speaking academics.

The critical tradition

Winckelmann's work marked the entry of art history into the high-philosophical discourse of German culture. Winckelmann was read avidly by Goethe and Schiller, both of whom began to write on the history of art, and his account of the Laocoon occasioned a response by Lessing. The emergence of art as a major subject of philosophical speculation was solidified by the appearance of Kant's Critique of Judgment in 1790, and was furthered by Hegel's Lectures on Aesthetics. Hegel's philosophy served as the direct inspiration for Karl Schnaase's work. Schnaase's Niederländische Briefe established the theoretical foundations for art history as an autonomous discipline, and his Geschichte der bildenden Künste, one of the first historical surveys of the history of art from antiquity to the Renaissance, facilitated the teaching of art history in German-speaking universities. Schnaase's survey was published contemporaneously with a similar work by Franz Theodor Kugler.


Most acknowledge Heinrich Wölfflin (1864-1945), who studied under Burckhardt in Basel, as the father of modern art history. Wölfflin certainly made the first formal analysis of the field. He introduced a scientific approach to the history of art, turning on three concepts. Firstly, he attempted to study art using psychology, particularly the work of Willhelm Wundt, one of the founders of scientific psychology. A principal, if strained, scientific conception was that of the artistic ideal of corporeal correspondence; i.e. that art and architecture are good if they resemble the human body. For example, houses were good if their façades looked like faces. Secondly, he introduced the idea of studying art through comparison. Hence by comparing individual paintings to each other, one were able to make distinctions of style. His book Renaissance and Baroque developed this idea, and was the first to show how these stylistic periods differed from one another. In contrast to Giorgio Vasari, Wölfflin was uninterested in the biographies of artists. In fact he proposed the creation of an "art history without names." Finally, he studied art based on ideas of nationhood. He was particularly interested in whether there was an inherently "Italian" and an inherently "German" style. This last interest was most fully articulated in his monograph on the German artist Albrecht Dürer.

He used a comparison - contrast type of analysis, and believed that both Renaissance and Baroque architecture "spoke" the same language - that of classical Greek and Rome - though with different dialects.

Wölfflin taught at the universities of Berlin, Basel, Munich, and Zurich. A number of students went on to distinguished careers in art history, including Jakob Rosenberg and Frida Schottmuller.

The Vienna School

Template:Main Contemporaneous with Wölfflin's career, a major school of art-historical thought developed at the University of Vienna. The first generation of the Vienna School was dominated by Alois Riegl and Franz Wickhoff, both students of Moritz Thausing, and was characterized by a tendency to reassess neglected or disparaged periods in the history of art. Riegl and Wickhoff both wrote extensively on the art of late antiquity, which before them had been considered as a period of decline from the classical ideal. Riegl also contributed to the revaluation of the Baroque.

The next generation of professors at Vienna included Max Dvořák, Julius von Schlosser, Hans Tietze, Karl Maria Swoboda, and Josef Strzygowski. A number of the most important twentieth-century art historians, including Ernst Gombrich, received their degrees at Vienna at this time.

However, the term "Second Vienna School" (or "New Vienna School") is usually reserved for the following generation of Viennese scholars, including Hans Sedlmayr, Otto Pächt, and Guido Kaschnitz von Weinberg. These scholars began in the 1930s to return to the work of the first generation, particularly to Riegl and his concept of Kunstwollen, and attempted to develop it into a full-blown art-historical methodology. Sedlmayr, in particular, rejected the minute study of iconography, patronage, and other approaches grounded in historical context, preferring instead to concentrate on the aesthetic qualities of a work of art. As a result, the Second Vienna School gained a reputation for unrestrained and irresponsible formalism, and was furthermore colored by Sedlmayr's overt racism and membership in the Nazi party. This latter tendency was, however, by no means shared by all members of the school; Pächt, for example, was himself Jewish, and was forced to leave Vienna in the 1930s.

Panofsky and iconography

Aby Warburg.

The opposite tendency, focusing more, although not exclusively, on iconography, was developed by a loose group of scholars who gathered in Hamburg in the 1920s. The most prominent among them were Erwin Panofsky, Aby Warburg, and Fritz Saxl. Panofsky, in his early work, also developed the theories of Riegl, but became eventually more preoccupied with iconography, and in particular with the transmission of themes related to classical antiquity in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. In this respect his interests coincided with those of Warburg, the son of a wealthy family who had assembled an impressive library in Hamburg devoted to the study of the classical tradition in post-classical art and culture. Under Saxl's auspices, this library was developed into a research institute, affiliated with the University of Hamburg, where Panofsky taught.

Warburg died in 1929, and in the 1930s Saxl and Panofsky, both Jewish, were forced to leave Hamburg. Saxl settled in London, bringing Warburg's library with him and establishing the Warburg Institute. Panofsky settled in Princeton at the Institute for Advanced Study. In this respect they were part of an extraordinary influx of German art historians into the English-speaking academy in the 1930s (the so-called "emigré scholars"), which also included Ernst Kitzinger, Richard Krautheimer, Otto Brendel, and Rudolf Wittkower. These scholars were largely responsible for establishing art history as a legitimate field of study in the English-speaking world, and the influence of Panofsky's methodology, in particular, determined the course of American art history for at least a generation.

Psychoanalytic art history

Heinrich Wölfflin was not the only scholar to invoke psychological theories in the study of art. Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud wrote a book on the artist Leonardo da Vinci, in which Freud used Leonardo's paintings to interrogate the artist's psyche and sexual orientation. Freud inferred from his analysis that Leonardo was probably homosexual. The use of posthumous material to perform psychoanalysis is controversial; furthermore, the sexual mores of Leonardo's time and Freud's are different.

Another important and famous exponent of psychoanalytic theory as applied to artists and their works is Carl Jung. His ideas about the collective unconscious and archetypal imagery in particular were popular especially among the American Abstract expressionists in the 1940s and 1950s.[10] The surrealist concept of drawing imagery from dreams, and the unconscious, stream of consciousness writing and painting defined the practice of many 20th century artists. C.G. Jung was a Swiss psychiatrist, an influential thinker, and founder of analytical psychology.

Jung's approach to psychology emphasized understanding the psyche through exploring the worlds of dreams, art, mythology, world religion and philosophy. Much of his life's work was spent exploring Eastern and Western philosophy, alchemy, astrology, sociology, as well as literature and the arts. His most notable contributions include his concept of the psychological archetype, the collective unconscious, and his theory of synchronicity. Jung believed that many experiences perceived as coincidence were not merely due to chance but, instead, suggested the manifestation of parallel events or circumstances reflecting this governing dynamic. [11]

Jung emphasized the importance of balance and harmony. He cautioned that modern humans rely too heavily on science and logic and would benefit from integrating spirituality and appreciation of the unconscious realm. Jackson Pollock famously created a series of drawings to accompany his psychoanalytic sessions with his Jungian psychoanalyst, Dr. Joseph Henderson. Henderson who later published the drawings in a text devoted to Pollock's sessions realized how powerful the drawings were as a therapeutic tool.[12]

After Freud and Jung, several other scholars have applied psychoanalytic theory to art. One of the most well know of which is Laurie Schnieder Adams, who wrote a popular textbook Art Across Time.

Prominent critical art historians

Since Heinrich Wolfflin's time, art history has embraced social history by using critical approaches. The goal of these approaches is to show how art interacts with power structures in society. The first critical approach that art historians used was Marxism. Marxist art history attempted to show how art was tied to specific classes, how images contain information about the economy, and how images can make the status quo seem natural (ideology). Clement Greenberg came to prominence during the late 1930s with his essay Avant-Garde and Kitsch, first published in the journal Partisan Review 1939.[13] In the essay Greenberg claimed that the avant-garde arose in order to defend aesthetic standards from the decline of taste involved in consumer society, and seeing kitsch and art as opposites. Greenberg further claimed that avant-garde and Modernist art was a means to resist the leveling of culture produced by capitalist propaganda. Greenberg appropriated the German word 'kitsch' to describe this consumerism, though its connotations have since changed to a more affirmative notion of left-over materials of capitalist culture. Greenberg was often referred to as a Marxist art critic / art historian. While Greenberg is primarily thought of as a formalist art critic many of his most important essays are crucial to the understanding of Modern art history, and the history of Modernism.[14]

Marxist art historians

Even Marxism has figured in the interpretation of art. Meyer Schapiro was the first art historian to take Marxism seriously. While he wrote about numerous time periods and themes in art, he is best remembered for his commentary on sculpture from the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, at which time he saw evidence of capitalism emerging and feudalism declining.

Arnold Hauser wrote the first Marxist survey of Western Art, titled "The Social History of Art." In this book he attempted to show how class consciousness was reflected in major art periods. His book was very controversial when it was published during the 1950s because it makes gross generalizations about entire eras. However, it remains in print as a classic art historical text.

T.J. Clark was the first art historian writing from a Marxist perspective to abandon vulgar Marxism per se. He wrote Marxist art histories of several impressionist and realist artists, including Gustave Courbet and Édouard Manet. These books focused closely on the political and economic climates in which the art was created.

Divisions by period

The field of Art History is traditionally divided into specializations or concentrations based on eras and regions. Such divisions typically include:

A number of sub-fields are included under each specialization. For example, the Ancient Near East, Greece, Rome, and Egypt are all typically considered special concentrations of Ancient art. In some cases, these specializations may be closely allied (as Greece and Rome, for example), while in others such alliances are far less natural (Indian art versus Korean art, for example).

Non-Western art is a relative newcomer to the Art Historical canon. Recent revisions of the semantic division between art and artifact have recast objects created in non-Western cultures in more aesthetic terms. Relative to those studying Ancient Rome or the Italian Renaissance, scholars specializing in Africa, the Ancient Americas and Asia are a growing minority.


Art historians employ a number of methods in their research into the qualities, nature and history of objects.

A formal analysis is one which focuses on the form of the object in question. Elements of form include line, shape, color, composition, rhythm, etc. At its simplest, such an analysis is simply exegesis, but it relies heavily on the art historian's ability to think critically and visually.

A stylistic analysis is one which focuses on the particular combination of formal elements into a coherent style. Often, a stylistic analysis makes reference to movements or trends in art as a means of drawing out the impact and import of a particular object.

An iconographical analysis is one which focuses on particular design elements of an object. Through a close reading of such elements, it is possible to trace their lineage, and with it draw conclusions regarding the origins and trajectory of these motifs. In turn, it is possible to make any number of observations regarding the social, cultural, economic, and/or aesthetic values of those responsible for producing the object.

Finally, many art historians use theory to frame their inquiries into objects. Theory is most often used when dealing with more recent objects, those from the late 19th century onward. A somewhat vague term, theoretical approaches to art can range quite broadly, from psychological analysis to aesthetics to Marxist critique and more.

See also

Further reading

Listed by date
  • Mansfield, Elizabeth (2002). Art History and Its Institutions: Foundations of a Discipline. Routledge. ISBN 0415228689
  • Mason, L., & Stokstad, M. (2002). Art history: study guide. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall.
  • Frazier, N. (1999). The Penguin concise dictionary of art history. New York: Penguin Reference.
  • Adams, L. (1996). The methodologies of art: an introduction. New York, NY: IconEditions.
  • Nelson, R. S., & Shiff, R. (1996). Critical terms for art history. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Fitzpatrick, V. L. N. V. D. (1992). Art history: a contextual inquiry course. Point of view series. Reston, VA: National Art Education Association.
  • Kemal, Salim, and Ivan Gaskell (1991). The Language of Art History. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 052144598
  • Carrier, D. (1991). Principles of art history writing. University Park, Pa: Pennsylvania State University Press.
  • Johnson, W. M. (1988). Art history: its use and abuse. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
  • Holly, M. A. (1984). Panofsky and the foundations of art history. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.
  • Arntzen, E., & Rainwater, R. (1980). Guide to the literature of art history. Chicago: American Library Association.
  • Hauser, A. (1959). The philosophy of art history. New York: Knopf.
  • Roos, F. J. (1954). An illustrated handbook of art history. New York: Macmillan.
  • Wilhelm, R. & Baynes, C., 1967. The I Ching or Book of Changes, With forward by Carl Jung. 3rd. ed., Bollingen Series XIX. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press (1st ed. 1950).
  • Wölfflin, H. (1940s). Principles of art history; the problem of the development of style in later art. [New York]: Dover Publications.

External links





Art historians

  1. Ernst Gombrich (1996). The Essential Gombrich, p. 7. London: Phaidon Press
  2. Art History and Its Institutions: Foundations of a Discipline By Elizabeth Mansfield
  3. The Methodologies of Art: An Introduction By Laurie Adams
  4. Principles of Art History Writing By David Carrier
  5. Critical Terms for Art History By Richard Shiff, Robert S. Nelson. Page 413.
  6. Beauty in Context: Towards an Anthropological Approach in Aesthetics By Wilfried Van Damme. Page 143.
  7. Panofsky and the Foundations of Art History By Michael Ann Holly. Page 107.
  8. Rethinking Art History: meditations on a coy science By Donald Preziosi. Page 157.
  9. Marilyn Stokstad. Art History (2d Ed.) 2004
  10. Jung defined the collective unconscious as akin to instincts in Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious.
  11. In Synchronicity in the final two pages of the Conclusion, Jung stated that not all coincidences are meaningful and further explained the creative causes of this phenomenon.
  12. Jackson Pollock An American Saga, Steven Naismith and Gregory White Smith, Clarkson N. Potter publ. copyright 1989, Archetypes and Alchemy pp. 327-338. ISBN 0-51756084-4
  13. Clement Greenberg, Art and Culture, Beacon Press, 1961
  14. Clement Greenberg: Modernism and Postmodernism, seventh paragraph of the essay. URL accessed on June 15, 2006