What is Art History?

Throughout my undergraduate study, I encountered many people who were admittedly or indirectly clueless as to what art history, by definition, is. The most common misunderstanding I run into is that art history is the study of how artists create art and the study of artistic mediums, especially through one’s practice of art. Not all (or even many) art historians are artists, and being an artist doesn’t make one an art historian. The goal of this article is to explain what constitutes art history and briefly introduce some of the methods that art historians use to form art historical analyses and theories.

I remember my first encounter with art history: I was in my 7th grade history class. We were studying the Byzantine Empire, and my textbook had a picture that was so enthralling, I didn’t bother paying attention to anything else. In front of me was a photograph of two mosaics of Emperor Justinian and his wife, Theodora. I don’t know why I found the concept of a mosaic to be so compelling or even beautiful. The mosaics certainly didn’t portray Justinian or Theodora as a gorgeous, Vogue king and queen. (Although I didn’t know it, beauty in Byzantium was very different than the present day definition.) All I know is that I thought the mosaics were the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen, even if they were only photographs. I didn’t know anything about art history, or that art history even existed, and when I finally did learn the art of art history, I didn’t remember my initial interest nor did I study the mosaics in depth. I do know that the moment I saw those ancient mosaics, I wanted to know all about them. Who made them? Why did they make them? Why are they made out of tiny pieces of glass, jewels and stones? Did anyone see them? What did the emperor think when he saw them? I didn’t know it, but my 7th grade self was asking art historical questions, all because she liked a certain medium.

Mediums, especially when artists have mastered their medium, have a lot to do with how we respond to art and the ways that we form our individual concept of what constitutes art. However, artistic mediums and artists’ methods are only part of what the study and understanding of art is, and only part of what art history entails. I say this a lot, but only because it’s true and often forgotten: by its nature, art history is an extremely interdisciplinary field.

Unfortunately, not all art historians incorporate other fields into their work; but such things are matters of individual preference. Most art history scholars have a signifier that makes their work recognizable by other scholars and students, and it is up to the scholar as to what method(s) he or she chooses to use. Art history’s most common methodologies are as follows (note that some historians mix elements of each method or use their own unique method):

  • Formalism: Analyzing artwork in terms of its composition, medium, geometric shapes, etc.
  • Connoisseurism: Evaluating art’s value based on aesthetics, authorship/school. More conceptual than an actual method of analysis, connoisseurism formed the basis of the idea that an artwork’s value is based on its aesthetics and authorship. It also involves lots of philosophical ideas about art – its worth, what makes certain art nice to look at, etc. – that affect(ed) art historians’ writing about art. Connoisseurs arranged art into catalogs based on schools or aesthetics. Art became categorized, a commodity, and something to be bought or not bought, valued or not valued based on the formal aspects of the work, painter, and the way in which a scene was represented.
  • Iconography: In short, the study of the scenes of an artwork, especially from written texts. Iconography is by far the most influential art historical method and perhaps the most logically sound, since by its very nature (its name), it recognizes that art is often based on a text, and that artwork and the texts attached to them always/often have socio-historical contexts.
  • Semiotics: In the simplest and most base definition, semiotics is the study of art using linguistic terms and concepts – i.e., how meaning in the visual language of art is created. There is no one semiotic method. Art can only be understood by the viewer, not (as other methods express) by the artist and viewer, and an artwork’s meaning changes with each viewer. Semiotics generally refuses to acknowledge the socio-historical setting of an artwork, which, for me, makes it only useful for the study of modern art.
  • Psychoanalysis: A popular method of analysis named after (you guessed it!) Freud’s level of psychological analysis. I’ve seen this method used to explore art from before the Renaissance to the present. Freud famously (or perhaps infamously) analyzed Leonardo da Vinci’s sexuality with regards to his art. Many art historians use psychoanalysis to delve into the psyche of the artist, using their art as a window into the artist’s mental and sexual state as individuals or even to discern how artists perceived certain scenes (such as the Madonna & Child). The obvious complication with psychoanalysis is that sexuality in the past, let alone in other countries, has been and is different than present day (including Freud’s day) thought about sexuality.
  • Neuroarthistory: A new and growing trend in the field, this method analyzes art, its creation and viewership in relationship to the brain.
  • For an excellent overview of most of these methods and more, read Hatt & Klonk’s book, which can be found in the Resources page. Hatt & Klonk also offer an excellent, not-to-be-missed overview of “the greats” who formed art history and aesthetic studies as we know it today – Winkelmann, Kant, Panofsky, and others.

Art historians are trained first in seeing, then in analysis and writing, and finally, in history. In its infant form, art history is formalism. One should describe a work of art’s composition, materials, and texture before delving into more conceptual material, such as examination of the work’s depicted figures, emotions, actions and events. How can one be trained in seeing, in observation? Observation takes practice, because it involves more than recognizing what’s depicted on canvas (or in stone, etc.). What is observed has to be understood and put into words. I’ve found that it’s easier for me to see what an artist is trying to achieve with a certain expression, style, medium, action, etc., when I know even a little bit about the historical context of the work. Even something as simple as, “This was painted in the Renaissance” is helpful: at the very basis of my knowledge about the Renaissance, I know that it was across Europe but centered in Italy in the 14th – 16th centuries and I know that Italy is Catholic. From this information alone, it is a lot easier to do observational guesswork when looking at a(n) (unknown) painting regarding who the figures are, what the scene is depicting, and so on.

Without any historical knowledge, such as might be the case if I was taking an Oceanic Art History course for the first time, it is still possible to observe a work of art. I could, for instance, discuss its materials, if the materials are perishable; I know that Oceania consists of islands, so how might the people on X island experience art? They may or may not have written text, they probably have oral traditions – art could be based on these. Is the artwork I’m viewing imposing? Food/nature related? Does it look like a performance piece, like it could be used in a ritual? Could it be a power symbol? — When you have no idea what you’re looking at, observation begins with questions.

Questions are best answered studying history, either in a class or, for the curious student, by yourself. I believe that for the most accurate and ‘proper’ examination of art, one should know artists and their works’ historical context in order to fully explore artists’ and art’s historical reception, intent, and message. Unfortunately, and this has been discussed in almost every art history course I’ve taken, the “history” in ‘art history’ is often ignored, even by professors (but who can blame a professor’s students for leaving out history if they themselves don’t teach it?) Knowing the history behind artists and their work is important because history reveals the politics (laws, war), religious beliefs, and psychology behind the aesthetics and scenic representations in art. Knowing about artists’ lives – as much as possible – is necessary, too, for a full analysis, because often an artist’s biography speaks to their creative processes and thought. For instance, Bernini was devoutly religious, which affected the way he chose to represent the scenes in his art. His religious scenes could, arguably, be considered acts of worship during their creation, completion, and viewing.

Let’s use Velazquez’ genre painting, Old Woman Cooking Eggs (1618) as a case study in observation, formalism, analysis, and history. (Each of these will be brief and, of course, not fully fleshed out because this is not a research paper; it is merely for exemplary purposes.) I asked my friends and family to look at this painting and tell me what they see. My mom replied, “Well I don’t know anything about the artist or the history so I can’t comment.” This is both the perfect proper response and improper response that I was looking for. She is correct because she cannot properly analyze the painting without knowing about the artist or history. However, I asked what she sees, not for an analysis based on the painting’s sociohistorical circumstances. It is important to differentiate between mere observation and full analysis.

Let’s begin with an extremely bare, basic formal analysis: The composition is dark. The palette mostly consists of reds, deep browns and blacks. There is a boy standing to the left of an old woman. Both figures are realistically painted. Scattered about are cooking utensils, jars, and food. The background is dark and empty, except for a couple pots and a basket with clothes. Although you can’t tell from the scan, the painting has smooth brush strokes. Let’s talk about what can be inferred from the scene: You could argue that the woman is blind (credit for this goes to a classmate in Spanish Baroque art history at UCLA); that she is pausing before responding to the boy (my mom’s idea); that the woman and boy are mother and son (my mom, again – never heard that one!); and/or that the boy is empathetic toward and/or works for the old woman. Subjectively, the woman looks confused, dazed, or paused in mid-speech. To me, the boy has a solemn expression on his face and if you look very closely, you’ll see that he isn’t meeting the woman’s gaze.

If you knew enough about Velazquez and Spanish history, you would be able to round out this basic analysis by discussing how Velazquez is known for his genre paintings, how poor citizens in Baroque Spain would, like this old woman, cook food for purchase in kiosks, how Velazquez used this woman as a model in previous work, that many scholars argue that he imbues his paintings with spirituality, and that, arguably, many of his paintings make subtle political or religious statements. You could use your knowledge of Spanish religious thought in the 17th century to discuss how different social classes would have reacted to such scenes (in art and life), and how and why Velazquez was so drawn to paint genre scenes, and so little drawn to paint popular Spanish scenes, such as martyrdoms. These avenues of exploration are not specifically hinted at in the painting and rely on individual interpretation, curiosities and questions. However, you have a better chance of interpreting paintings appropriately if you know the history of the artist, the times in which he lived, the ideals that surrounded him, and have taken the time to adequately discuss what the painting depicts before jumping into theories about what it represents.

Generally, once an art historian has observed, analyzed and learned the history behind a work of art, they write about it. Art historical essays are simultaneously the easiest and most frustrating essays to write, because they involve describing artwork in writing, explaining historical, social and philosophical concepts on paper and analyzing these things as a cohesive whole. There is such thing as a wrong analysis of a work of art (for instance, if an analysis was based on a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of history), but for the most part, ideas tossed around in the art historical word can be and often are discussed, whether among classmates, colleagues, or the wider world of academia.

When studying art history, keep in mind that history affects art, and art affects history. I’ve tried not to give a definite, single definition of the field of art history because it encompasses so many things. Art history is itself an art that must be practiced to be mastered. Art historical writings must be distributed or published to be recognized by peers and scholars; ideas and theories are tested, refined and proven in the world of academia. Art historians espouse their special knowledge of an oft ignored side of history and reawaken history itself in works of art. Art history embraces and celebrates history and humanness; it illuminates the creative and emotional journeys and the rises and falls of great men, women, and nations throughout time. Art history attempts to explain the ideals and experiences of past times, but, as much as I want it to, it cannot usher us back in time to experience these times for ourselves in any concrete form. It merely places us in historical times through writing, reading, and observing – all of which take place in the mind. To close with the words of Professor Marvin Tratchenberg (NYU) in Dominion of the Eye,

Art history – to state what is often forgotten – is never a time machine but a time-bound method that, at best, produces only artificial, intellectual constructs, synthesized echoes of what once was a compelling immediacy of the senses and a cognition strictly limited to the authentic historical experience of its lived time.