(Western) art history unpacked

This syllabus is a broad introduction to issues in art history and the period between c. 1200–1900.

The focus is on Europe, but we won't ignore the rest of the world.

Marilyn Diptych 1962 Andy Warhol 1928-1987 (Tate)

Unit 1

Questions in art history | Why is art history important?

Key questions and ideas

• Why do people study art history?
• The definition of art changes through history.
• The discipline of Art History is constantly changing.
• When did art history, as a discipline, develop? What are the ramifications of that?
• What are the recent changes taking place in art history?
• Why we should be skeptical about what we see and also critical of art history.
• What art gets remembered? What doesn’t get remembered?

Museums are tightly intertwined with politics and the expression of power.

Unit 2

Museums, textbooks and the art market | Who tells art’s history?

Key questions and ideas

• Where do the works in the museum come from?
• Who decides what’s in the museum? Or the textbook?
• How is what is in an art museum different from other things in the world?
• How have museums changed?
• How have artists critiqued museums?
• How is the art in museums organized?
• How does looted art end up in museums?
• What are the effects of Napoleon’s confiscations of works of art?
• What happens when we change the context of a work of art (from a church to a museum, for example)?

(Seated Figure, terracotta, 13th century, Mali, Inland Niger Delta region, Djenné peoples, 25/4 x 29.9 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York))

Unit 3

Describing and interpreting | How art history can help

Key questions and ideas

• Describing what you see in words will help you interpret a work of art.
• Looking takes time (way longer than you think it does) and it helps to ask yourself questions while you look.
• When you look, it’s helpful think about formal issues such as scale, composition, pictorial space, form, line, color, light, tone, texture, and pattern when you look at a work of art.
• What are the differences between naturalism, realism, abstraction and idealization?
• How to use iconography to understand a work of art.
• The difference between form and subject (and why form is so important).
• How art can help us empathize with people in other cultures and with people from the past.

Robert Campin (also called the Master of Flémalle), Christ and the Virgin, c. 1430-35, oil and gold on panel, 11-1/4 x 17-15/16 inches (28.6 x 45.6 cm) (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Unit 4

Humanizing the divine | 1200s – 1300s (the late middle ages)

Key questions and ideas

• What issues are involved in representing the divine in human form?
• In the 1200s and 1300s (the late medieval period) spiritual figures (saints, Christ, etc.) begin to appear more human.
• What is an altarpiece?
• Saint Francis (and his order, the Franciscans), encouraged a more emotional and personal connection to Christ and other spiritual figures.
• Duccio and Giotto are two artists in Italy (among many) from the 1300s who begin to create divine figures that appear more human and accessible.
• The late medieval period sees the rise of cities, and the Dominican and Franciscan friars who preach there.
• A newly wealthy merchant class commissions works of art.

Veduta della catena (chain map) of Florence, c. 1471–72, attributed to Francesco and Raffaello Petrini, etching, 1.25 x 1.38 m (Palazzo Vecchio, Florence)


The Renaissance | 1400s

Key questions and ideas

• Renaissance artists develop new tools to depict the world in a naturalistic way (linear perspective, atmospheric perspective, the study of human anatomy).
• Increasingly wealthy patrons (from banking, trade, manufacturing) commission works of art to signify their status, assure their place in heaven, and beautify their city.
• Different Renaissance styles emerge in Northern Europe (Flanders) and Italy.
• There was a growing Humanist outlook, that emphasized humanity’s capacity to achieve greatness through knowledge and free will.
• Italian artists looked back to classical antiquity (ancient Greece and Rome) for inspiration (artists borrowed forms from ancient Greek and Roman art such as contrapposto, and the forms of ancient Greek and Roman architecture)
• In Florence, the wealthy Medici Family encouraged Humanism and commissioned important works of art. They were also, for much of the century, the de-facto rulers of Florence.
• The artists of Northern Europe perfect the use of oil paint to depict fine details and textures.
• Art that is more naturalistic is not better art.

Convento San Agustín de Acolman, c. 1539-80


Late Renaissance, Mannerism | 1500s

Key questions and ideas

• The Catholic church comes under attack by Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation begins (as does the Catholic church’s response—the Counter-Reformation)
• Spain conquers the Aztecs (in what is today Mexico City), establishes a colony in the Americas (New Spain), and begins to convert millions of indigenous people
• Protestants and Catholics have different ideas about the role of art.
• Pope Julius II was an important art patron.
• Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Raphael develop a style art historians refer to as the High Renaissance.
• In the later part of the century, a new style develops in Europe: Mannerism
• The transatlantic slave trade begins.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Baldacchino, 1624-33, 100′ high, gilded bronze (Saint Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City, Rome)

Unit 7

The scientific revolution, colonialism, and the mandate to spread Christianity | 1600s

Key questions and ideas

• During this period, empiricism and observation become important.
• Thanks to the scientific revolution (especially Copernicus), human beings recognize that they are not at the center of the universe.
• The dramatic style of Baroque art is related to the triumph of the Catholic church.
• The Manila Galleon trade created an important route for the global exchange of materials.
• In the Protestant Dutch Republic, artists create paintings for a wide audience (including new subjects such as landscapes, still-lives, and genre scenes).
• In New Spain, Casta paintings document the inter-ethnic mixing occurring in New Spain among Europeans, Indigenous peoples, Africans, and the existing mixed-race population

Covered sugar bowl, c. 1745, silver, 11.5 x 9.1 cm (Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art)

Unit 8

Revolution | 1700s

Key questions and ideas

• The French monarchy and the Rococo style
• Revolutions in France and the United States overthrow monarchies and lay the groundwork for the democracies of the modern world.
• The intimate relationship between Sugar and the slave trade
• The ideals of the Enlightenment are expressed in the work of Jacques Louis David and the style of Neoclassicism.

Édouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, oil on canvas, 1882 (Courtauld Gallery, London)

Unit 9

Becoming Modern | 1800s

Key questions and ideas

• The Dutch West India Company brings slaves to the United States, and aside from South Carolina, New York at one point had the largest slave population in the U.S.
• The emergence of the characteristics of modern life (the growth of cities, the industrial revolution, and the beginnings of mass production and consumer culture)
• The importance of Paris as a center for art and artists
• An understanding of the role of artists as outsiders who create radical art that challenges the status quo
• The beginnings of photography

Adolf Hitler and Adolf Ziegler inspect the installation by Willrich and Hansen of the Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich, 1937