Interested in Studying Art History? Start Here
A question that I get asked a lot is: “How do I get started in learning about art history?”
In my experience, most people who develop an interest in the history of art have usually had their curiosity kindled by a meaningful interaction with a single work of art or perhaps the work of a specific artist.
As this initial interest develops, they begin to read articles and browse through books. The kinship with the world of art deepens, but along with it comes a sense that the history of art is complicated, perhaps even confusing. All too quickly, disorientation begins to bite.
This is a common experience. I actually think it is probably the most healthy way to begin looking into art history. Why? Because an interest that begins with a personal connection lays the strongest foundations possible. A love of an individual work or artist can instigate a lifelong passion.
Now to get to the heart of the question: where does a beginner actually begin?
Connect your first passion with a wider setting
My first piece of advice is to return to your first passion and try to understand its place in the wider context. Perhaps it was a painting by Monet, perhaps it was a Greek sculpture you saw in a museum, or perhaps it was an abstract painting from the 20th century by someone like Mark Rothko.
Wherever your initial spark began, my advice is to start there. Read around the artist. Learn about the subject matter of their work. Learn a bit about their life and which other artists they were friends with and so on. It is amazing how quickly you can begin to make connections. And sooner or later, connections turn into knowledge.
Structuring your study
A test of whether your study process is well-structured or not is if you actually retain the material you take in. It’s fairly easy to sweep up masses of information; it is less easy to digest it and mentally assemble it into a meaningful body of learning.
One useful way of looking at the history of art is to view it as a series of turning points. The Italian Renaissance is one such turning point. The advent of Modern art is another. These turning points are excellent places to focus on in order to build up a general structure. I would start with five of the major turning points in the history of Western art:
Get your bearings with these terms and get to know some of the key artists associated with them. For instance, the period known as Baroque might be described in the following way:
Covering the years between around 1600–1730, Baroque art and architecture combined the classical idealism of the Renaissance with a greater emphasis on drama, with artists seeking to evoke emotional states, using strong colour schemes and employing swirling spirals and upward diagonals. Heavily sponsored by the Catholic church, Baroque art was intimately related to the Counter-Reformation movement. Key artists included:
Peter Paul Rubens 1577–1640
Gian Lorenzo Bernini 1598–1680
Diego Velázquez 1599–1660
In time, you may well come to question the validity of these turning points and wonder if they are, in fact, more like constructs of the field of art history rather than entirely accurate descriptions of what actually happened.
But you’ve got to start somewhere. It’s a bit like geography: there are countries and territories on the map. First you must learn where these territories are and the shape of the borders between them. Only later do you begin to probe the history behind them and come to see that countries — just like categories in art — are often the result of debates, power struggles and the strange vicissitudes of history.
Which do you want to be? A specialist or a generalist?
Like so many other fields of study, in art history you can become either a specialist or a generalist. A specialist will focus in on a particular area and, like a deep-sea diver, swim to the lesser-charted depths. A generalist stays closer to the surface. Since they have their eyes raised to the horizon, they have the benefit of taking in a wider view.
Over the years, it’s fairly clear to me that I’ve become a generalist in my studies. I can’t say it was intentional, except that I do prefer to look widely so I can see as much as possible. I think it’s because I enjoy too many things to ever want to concentrate on one of them solely.
It wasn’t always this way. When I first studied the history of art, my final dissertation was fairly specialist. The title of the work was: An analysis of how and why painted gestures of prayer in fifteenth century Italian frescoes in the traditions of Franciscan and Dominican art served the very different preaching missions of each Order.
Dissertations tend to be specialist. I remember my tutor encouraged me go narrower and narrower with my subject in order to enable me to dig deeper into a single topic. I’d respond to her with a new subject title, and she’d tell me again to go narrower. Her message was a wise one: cast your net too wide and you’ll never get to the bottom of anything.
Nonetheless, since then I’ve returned to a more generalist view. I like to learn about as much as I can, from Modern art to Buddhist sculpture, from Greek architecture to Post Impressionist painting. My tutor was right in one sense, that when you are general it’s difficult to narrow down your points of reference. Still, I like to look wide. It’s up to you how you take your studies forward. I hope this guide has helped.
My name is Christopher P Jones and I’m an art historian, critic and the author of How to Read Paintings. (Click link for Kindle, Apple, Kobo and other e-reader devices).
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