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 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 which Pliny the Elder drew upon 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





Art for Dummies definition =
art happens when anyone in the world takes any kind of material and fashions it into a deliberate statement
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.





















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.











The French Academy began to hold annual Salons in 1664.

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.
Piero Antonio Martini, The Paris Salon of 1787. (engraving)











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 a Kenneth Noland painting, 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.











To analyze a work of art:
1. Describe the work
2. Choose a method to better understand the work

Remember, you the viewer, use the method to better understand the artwork. Sometimes the artist uses a method to make the work, but the work NEVER uses the methods because it's a thing, not a person.

3. What questions do you ask of the work?

The questions you ask, depend on the method you are using.

4. Develop an argument that articulates meaning
Mike Kelly, Ahh...Youth, 1991.










"It is commonly assumed that vision is immediate. It seems direct, uncomplicated, and instantaneous—which is why it has arguably become the master sense for the delivery of information in the contemporary technological world. However, just because you have looked at something doesn’t mean that you have seen it. Just because something is available instantly to vision does not mean that it is available instantly to consciousness."
- Jennifer L. Roberts
Emperor Justinian with Attendants
Emperor Justinian and Attendants, Mosaic on north wall of the apse,
Church of San Vitale. c. 547. 8' 8" by 12'.











Remember to begin a practice of questioning.
Open ended questions are stronger because they can usually be answered with multiple acceptable answers.
"How" and "Why" questions lead to more depth than "What" and "Who" questions.
Remember that you may not be able to answer all of your questions immediately and that's OK.


Zeus or Poseidon

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











Art Historical Methodologies
considers the visual elements of a work such as line, composition, color, media to interpret meaning
identifies the symbols in a work, and uses their definition to interpret meaning
identifies symbols in a work, and considers why they mean what they mean to interpret meaning
considers the socio-economic position of women represented, implied, making, or viewing the work, as well as issues of equality and power (or the lack thereof) to interpret meaning
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
considers the life of the artist, and/ or significant events in their lives to interpret meaning
considers economic factors related to Marx's theory of class and power to interpret meaning
considers the unconscious effects of traumatic events or experiences in the life of the artist or viewer, or shared by a society, to interpret meaning
It is always necessary to consider historical context when using each of these tools