What is Art History?

"Because I'm an art historian, I have some experience of writing that comes out of close attention. That's [really] what art history is. You're looking at something very closely, and you try to write in a meticulous way about it." - Teju Cole


Looking inside/outside of the box
at SF MoMA











A Brief History of Art History


The Critics
The idea of "art" is a relatively new term, existing only about 250 years. Our definition of art is modern.
Honore Daumier, The Critics, 1862.











Pliny the Elder
Ancient works exhibit clear rules
The Ancient Greeks appear to be the first to recognize individual artisans
The Athenian sculptor, Xenocrates wrote a history of Greek sculpture that Pliny the Elder drew upon and quoted in his Historia Naturalis.
Pliny the Elder










Aesthetics = concerns the theory of art and beauty. Questions of art and beauty are grouped in the realm of value because many philosophical problems in aesthetics involve critical judgements.
What is the most beautiful painting?
What is the most valuable work of art?
What is art?
O-yoroi, the early Japanese armor of the samurai class of feudal Japan











Dictionary definition =
the quality, production or expression of what is beautiful, appealing or of more than ordinary significance

Mona Lisa





Leonardo Da Vinci, Mona Lisa, c. 1503.











Queen Nefertiti
Sumerian fluted goblet from the tomb of Queen Puabi Electrum, 2500 BCE.
Bust of Nefertiti, consort of Akhenaten, 18th Dynasty.












Kerloas Menhir, France, c. 6500 BCE. Height 33 feet.
Sarcophagus, from Ceveteri, c. 520 BCE. Terra-cotta, length 6' 7".












Pre-Linear script from Crete, Linear A, and Linear B Mycenaen script
Lamassau from the Citadel of Sargon II, Neo-Assyrian, c. 720 - 705 BCE.











Giorgio Vasari
The painter Giorgio Vasari is credited with having published the first art history text, The Lives of the Most Excellent Architects, Painters, and Sculptors.
Vasari knew many of the artists about whom he wrote and though the work is deeply polemical and full of legends accepted as fact by Vasari, his was the first attempt to create a scholarly framework into which to place art history.
Giorgio Vasari, Self-Portrait, 1511.










Growing out of the salons held at the Hôtel de Rambouillet that were focused on the discussion of literature during the late 1620s and early 1630s, the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture was founded in France in 1648.
Louis XIV
Academies would then be established in Rome, Athens, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Britain, the U.S., Holland, and Spain.
An important feature of the academies were schools of fine art that allowed academy members to advance their studies, and would later offer important competitions to emerging artists.
These academies published their own texts and allowed scholars of various disciplines to collaborate in different areas of classical studies, unlike the more rigidly structured universities. Classical and early-medieval art historians blossomed under these new impetus.
Hyacinthe Rigaud, Louis XIV, 1701.











Louis XIV proclaimed in his founding address that the intention of the Academy was to reward all worthy artists "without regard to the difference of sex."
1648 - 1706
Seven women gained admittance to Academy
Academy declared itself closed to women
Limit of four women members at any one time
Women not admitted to Academy school
Women banned from competing for Prix de Rome
Odette Pauvert became first woman to win the Prix de Rome
Anne Seymour Damer, The Damerian Apollo, 1789.











1664 French Academy begins to hold annual Salons
To show at a salon, a young artist needed to be received by the Académie by first submitting an artwork to the jury; only Académie artists could be shown in the salons. Salons were started under Louis XIV and continued until 1704. After a hiatus, the salons started up again in 1725.

  • A salon, the Salon and salon style
  • A salon = a fashionable assemblage of notables held by custom at the home of a prominent person
  • The Salon = annual display of art established as a venue to show the works of Academy members
  • Salon style = method in which artworks are exhibited in a gallery that utilizes the maximum amount of space possible
Piero Antonio Martini, The Paris Salon of 1785.











French Revolution 1789 - 1799
The Louvre was first opened as a museum by France's Revolutionary government in 1793.
Musée Central des Arts in the Grande Galerie of the Louvre











Luncheon on the Grass

During the Enlightenment and early modern eras, art history as a discipline began to blossom.
However, in the early years of this century most art historians were principally interested in two types of problems:
Establishing the authorship and date of works of art.
Aanalyzing changes in style, both in the careers of individual artists and as a more general process.
Manet, Luncheon on the Grass (Le Dejeuner Sur L'Herbe), 1863.











As printing technologies improved, the study of art history became accessible to more and more people.











Eventually, as published discourse began to proliferate, art theory developed beyond aesthetic concerns.
"A theory is more than a definition; it is a framework that supplies an orderly explanation of observed phenomena. A theory should help things make sense rather than create obscurity through jargon and weighty words. It should systematically unify and organize a set of observations, building from basic principles. " - Cynthia Freeland
Wall Street Journal, Pep Montserrat











Clement Greenberg with Noland painting

In the 1960s new criteria for writing art history were adopted by many art historians with an emphasis on a variety of considerations, including feminism, and an overlay of a literary-theory model of interpretation which became known as the "New Art History."
More recently, these considerations have expanded to include Marxist, Psychoanalytic, and semiotic approaches to analysis.
Clement Greenberg studying Kenneth Noland, Song, 1958.











The Questions Art Historians Ask
Chronology = When was it made? How old is it?
Provenance = Where was it made? Who paid for it, and when?
Artist = Who made it? Under what conditions was the work conceived?
Style = How does it look? Is that look particular to a time, place or artist?
Subject = Who and what is depicted? What story is being told?
Iconography = What symbols are used and what do they mean?
Form = How was the work composed and made?
Consider the formal elements such as composition, materials, technique, line, color, texture, space, mass, volume, perspective, foreshortening, proportion, scale, etc.











Zeus or Poseidon

Zeus, c. 460 - 450 BC. Bronze, height 6' 10".