JET Home
chat loading...
Skip to main content

Art History: The search for sources: Home


Flower Matango

Murakami, T. (2001-2006). Flower Matango [Sculpture]. Exhibited at Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn, NY. Retrieved from


Pantheon [Building]. (Erected in 17 BCE; destroyed by fire in 80 CE and rebuilt under Emperor Hadrian (76-138 CE) in 110 CE)). Rome, Italy. Retrieved from

Luncheon of the Boating Party

Renoir, P. A. (1880-81). Luncheon of the boating party [Painting]. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. Retrieved from

Ahu Nau Nau

Ahu Nau Nau [Sculptures]. (10th-12th cent.). Anakena Beach, Easter Island. Retrieved from


Botticelli, S. (C. 1478). Primavera [Painting]. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy. Retrieved from

Nude descending a staircase no. 2

Duchamp, M. (1912). Nude descending a staircase no. 2 [Painting]. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA. Retrieved from

Aurochs and rhinoceroses: To the left of Panel of the horses

Aurochs and rhinoceroses: To the left of Panel of the horses [Painting]. (Ca. 30,000 B.C). Chauvet Cave, France.Retrieved from:

Sainte-Chapelle: Interior view of a stained glass window; detail of Jesus

Sainte-Chapelle: Interior view of a stained glass window; detail of Jesus [Stained glass]. Sainte-Chapelle, Paris, FR. Retrieved from:

Black walnut

Bessin, after Pierre Joseph Redoute. (2004). Black walnut [Painting]. In Eyes of the nation: A visual history of the United States. Charlestown, MA: Bunker Hill Publishing. Retrieved from (Original work created in 1810-13)

Lady and the unicorn

Lady and the unicorn [Tapestry]. (C. late 15th century). Musée de Cluny, Paris, FR. Retrieved from

Shiva as Lord of Dance

Shiva as Lord of Dance [Sculpture]. (Chola period (880-1279), ca. 11th century). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Retrieved from:

Jewel encrusted gold cup

Cup [Painting found in The Jack and Belle Linsky Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]. (1982). Retrieved from

Art history: A brief overview

Art history

Knowledge or study of the visual arts within a historical framework, the nature and breadth of which have been the subject of much discussion. Although earlier accounts of art and of aesthetics had suggested or implied the appropriateness and possibility of tracing patterns of historical development within the visual arts, it was perhaps only in the 19th century that a concerted attempt was made to give art history a philosophical basis. As art history subsequently became increasingly linked to and rooted in academic and educational institutions, it was accompanied by a shift in the status of the art historian, who came to be seen as the exponent of an increasingly sophisticated and specialized professional practice. Partly as a result of this increased specialization, and partly as a result of cross-fertilization with other disciplines, at the end of the 20th century art history in the Western world was characterized by a pluralism of approaches and by an acceptance of this pluralism as a corrective to what some perceived as a misguided earlier attempt to give a single comprehensive and universal account of art. This article therefore examines art history from three viewpoints: first, through a brief account of the development of art history as an intellectual discipline; second, through an account of art history as a modern institutional practice, mostly within the Western world; and third, through an analysis of some recent areas of contention within the discipline. It should be stressed that the analysis of issues must be seen as only one possible critique of art history. It should also be noted that art history generally flourishes in advanced industrial societies, counting as a luxury in the less industrially developed nations. Some developing countries, such as Nigeria, Thailand and India, have also emphasized the cultivation of the study of their own artistic heritage as a spur to the formation of a national identity. (In India art history is most typically considered part of the discipline of archaeology, art generally referring to material of the artists working within a ‘modern art’ framework in the Western sense.) In such contexts the role of the art historian is naturally very different and relatively well defined.

Wayne R. Dynes

I. Historical development.

1. Before the 15th century.

The earliest surviving work that can be described as a history of art is the account of the unfolding of Greek painting and sculpture found in the Natural History (XXXIII–XXXVII) written by Pliny the Elder (see Pliny, (1)) in the 1st century AD. From this Roman work, which interprets art in terms of progress, modern scholars have recovered the ideas of the Greek who appears to have been the first art historian, Xenokrates of Sikyon (his own writings remain untraced). Having trained as a sculptor, Xenokrates sought to formulate criteria whereby the development of art could be measured. To judge from indications in Pliny, by the time of Xenokrates a canon of the great masters of Greek sculpture and monumental painting had already emerged. Moreover, the idea of decline had made its presence felt: in the early Hellenistic period, when Xenokrates was writing, the sense that the great epoch of Greek art was ebbing became widespread. A participant–observer, Xenokrates typifies the artist–critic who regarded his own time (even if somewhat disappointing, as it may have been in his case) as part of a continuously unfolding story. By contrast, the aristocratic Pliny took a purely retrospective view: he largely ignored Roman painters, so that art essentially belonged to ‘long ago’—a lost Golden Age. This contrast between art as a continually developing process and art as the product of a past age was to echo down the centuries, with those critics who themselves began as artists tending to be more sympathetic to recent or contemporary works. In later Roman times two important genres were fostered: the guidebook tradition, of which the major landmark is the 2nd-century Description of Greece by Pausanias (see Guidebook, §2), and the Ekphrasis, a mode of vivid description of works of art, sometimes imaginary ones. With alterations responding to new religious interests, these two genres of writing about art continued into the Middle Ages, which introduced no fundamental innovations in the history of art.

While European art history marked time, an extraordinary independent awareness developed in China (see China, §V, 5). The first landmark was the pithy Six Laws of Painting set forth by Xie He ( fl c. 500–35). Subsequent Chinese art history was carried forward by the scholar–official class, whose members, like Xie He, were required to be adept in calligraphy, regarded as closely akin to painting, which they often practised as well. During the 11th and 12th centuries connoisseurs, basing themselves on earlier schemes, consolidated a standard three-category ranking of painters from the past: inspired, excellent and competent—sometimes supplemented by a fourth, extraordinary group, the untrammelled. Other scholars explored the contrast between the Northern and Southern Song schools, which show marked differences in style. The Chinese thus formulated a canon of worthy artists, who were then ranked by status, and they explored formal differences based on school and geography. These Chinese theories of art seem to have evolved entirely independently, although they bear similarities with ancient and later European ones. They declined during the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), however, and played little role in the West, except in the 20th-century study of Chinese art itself (see also §III, 2 below).

2. 15th century to the late 19th.

The revived Western tradition of art history stems from the Italian Renaissance, with its renewed interest in the works of Classical antiquity and striving for fame, a lure to artists as well as to writers and political figures. This sense of fame as a kind of earthly immortality counts as one of the roots of the concept of individual genius, which was to be important in the later cult of the great masters. Combining the example of Pliny with his own enquiries, the sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti (see Ghiberti, (1)) created the first sketch of the history of Italian art in his Commentarii (c. 1450). After his death, several writers compiled notes containing a good deal of miscellaneous information, while oral reports of the undertakings of artists continued to circulate. This data remained unsynthesized, however, until the publication in 1550 of Vasari’s monumental work Le vite de’ più eccelenti architetti, pittori, et scultori italiani, which was followed by an enlarged edition in 1568 (see Vasari, (1)). This Italian painter, architect and scholar wrote as the intensity of the Renaissance art effort was waning. Although Vasari was avidly read in his own day and subsequently for the vivid details he supplied about individual works and their creators, he also propounded an overarching theory of the history of art. From 1250 to his own time, he believed, there had been three main eras: a modest, though hopeful, beginning; an improved, but still imperfect, intermediate stage; and the final attainment (which became known as the High Renaissance). This summit of perfection posed a dilemma: since it was not possible to go higher, art could only maintain itself on a plateau or begin to descend in quality. This second possibility became part of a discourse of decadence that continued to haunt cultural historians (see also Decadence and decline). Vasari entertained a normative concept of three styles: the ‘good’ all’antica style (whereby affinities could be traced between Renaissance art and its Greco-Roman predecessor), and the ‘bad’ Gothic and Byzantine styles. Finally, although he was a rationalist and a believer in adherence to the rules, Vasari suggested that a few artists were endowed with grazia, an ineffable excellence.

Vasari’s model long ranked as paradigmatic. Gradually over the next two centuries his ideas spread first through Italy and then throughout Europe and became the dominant way of organizing information about art. Such writers as Karel van Mander (see Mander, (1)), joachim von Sandrart, roger de Piles and Antonio Palomino (see Palomino, (1)) took over Vasari’s conceptual framework, adding much data from their own national records. Slowly, however, a new type of art historian also emerged, as great collectors began to employ learned functionaries. Two prominent examples are filippo Baldinucci, who worked for the Medici, and the archaeologist johann joachim Winckelmann, who was in the service of Cardinal Alessandro Albani. Winckelmann’s elegant writings, most notably his Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums (1764), marked a new phase of art history, characterized by German dominance. Winckelmann held that scholars should sternly avoid personalities and write of art as a product of inexorable forces. In his rapturous accounts of the culture of ancient Greece, which he had earlier studied in the Classical texts, he emphasized the enabling factors of climate and political freedom, and he may thus be regarded as a proto-historicist. He also represented a beholder-centred (rather than artist-centred) historiography. Although he claimed competence only in ancient art, Winckelmann also disparaged the Baroque styles that continued to exert a powerful influence on 18th-century art and thereby helped (with such contemporaries as gotthold ephraim Lessing) to foster the rise of the antithetical trend of Neo-classicism. In addition to his effects on art history and archaeology, Winckelmann gave impetus to the nascent field of art criticism (Denis Diderot acknowledged his influence), and from that point onwards the more contemporary-minded field of art criticism began to diverge from art history proper.

During the early decades of the 19th century historical research enjoyed enormous prestige in Germany. Discarding earlier models that expressed universal normative preferences, the new trend, sometimes termed historicism, emphasized the unique character of each individual epoch. Above all, the scholar embracing this ideal was required to resist anachronistic longings to project his or her own preferences on to the past. With regard to art research there were two main versions of historicism: a universal model derived from the philosopher and university professor georg wilhelm friedrich Hegel, in which art—from the ancient Egyptians to Hegel’s own time—moves from the symbolic to the classic to the romantic mode in accordance with the historical development of Geist or Spirit; and a particularist version, spearheaded by the independent scholar Karl Friedrich von Rumohr (1785–1843), which stresses the collection of discrete facts and the critical scrutiny of individual paintings. This last preoccupation fuelled the trend towards connoisseurship exemplified by giovanni Morelli, bernard Berenson and max jacob Friedländer—a major theme of 19th-century art history (see Connoisseurship, §1(ii)).

Another important development in the 19th century was the institutionalization of art history as an academic discipline, beginning with the appointment in 1834 of Franz Kugler (1800–58) to the chair of art history at the Universität in Berlin. Professorial chairs were subsequently created at the universities of Bonn, Strasbourg, Leipzig and Prague, which were all occupied by German speakers. Slowly the institution spread to other countries, and there were also separate appointments in Classical archaeology. This development was accompanied by the establishment of a new approach to the study of art, placing it within the framework of a broader study of cultural history and thereby allowing such figures as jacob Burckhardt to mediate between the two different versions of historicism. Other scholars meanwhile found employment in the great museums that were founded in many European capitals in the 19th century (see Museum, §I). gustav friedrich Waagen, who became Director of the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin in 1830, was the first distinguished figure of this type, closely followed by Charles Eastlake, who developed the National Gallery in London.

3. Late 19th century and after.

It was only from the 1880s that modern art history crystallized into a new synthesis, which remained influential until the 1960s. The Swiss heinrich Wölfflin created a formalist system based on the contrast between two ‘modes of beholding’, the first dominant during the Renaissance, the second during the Baroque. He also introduced a series of terms to characterize this contrast; of these, the linear and its antithesis, the painterly, are probably the most important. The linear mode brings out discrete separations between depicted entities by introducing clear lines and contours, while the painterly approach tends to merge individual elements into a single whole, the fluidity of which denies any clear boundaries. During the following decade the Viennese art historians franz Wickhoff and alois Riegl developed similar models, though with more allowance for cultural factors. This Vienna school (like Wölfflin) was influenced by new discoveries in experimental psychology, especially in the study of perception, and was important in ‘rehabilitating’ such neglected eras of art history as Roman art, Early Christian art, Mannerism and the Baroque (see also Austria, §XVII). Links between the new openness signalled by these scholarly advances and the artistic avant-garde of the Post-Impressionists, though often posited, are not easily demonstrable.

In turn-of-the-century France the medievalist emile Mâle emphasized content over form, leading to the maturation of a new approach to subject-matter. These endeavours were carried further by his younger Hamburg contemporary aby Warburg, who founded a widely influential research institute, which later moved to London. Both figures gave important impetus to the study of iconography, the subdiscipline that addresses stable patterns of meaning in visual schemata and is therefore akin to semiotics. One of Warburg’s protégés was the prodigiously learned erwin Panofsky. Sometimes misrepresented as a Formalist, Panofsky sharply criticized both Wölfflin and Riegl. He was interested chiefly in medieval and Renaissance art and brought to bear a range of sources, both visual and literary, intended to produce a holistic reading of individual works of art in keeping with a method that he termed ‘iconology’ (see Iconography and iconology). In 1933 the application of Hitler’s racial laws compelled Panofsky to settle in the USA. From the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ, he exercised a beneficent ascendancy over a maturing American art history. In fact, with the work of arthur kingsley Porter and charles rufus Morey, American art history had begun to develop auspiciously during the second decade of the 20th century. In the mid-20th century, reinforced by a transatlantic migration comprising some 400 art scholars (many, though not all, of Jewish origin), it achieved international prominence. Meyer Schapiro (b 1904) integrated approaches derived from anthropology, psychoanalysis, philosophy and other disciplines, while Leo Steinberg (b 1920) combined close visual analysis with a careful reading of texts to provide flexible and subtle models of interpretation. Institutional art history, however, tended to neglect modern and contemporary art, and the first great strides in this area were made by scholars outside academia, such as julius Meier-graefe, roger Fry and alfred h. Barr. Also neglected by the mainstream was Asian art, although cultivated by such figures as ernest francisco Fenollosa (China and Japan), joseph Strzygowski (western Asia), k. a. c. Creswell (Islam), ananda kentish Coomaraswamy (India and Sri Lanka) and stella Kramrisch (India).

After World War II the discipline was eager to find its way back to positive values. Panofsky’s emphasis on philosophy, religion and traditional humanism seemed particularly relevant in the immediate post-war period, yet with the maturation of the secular post-war culture, with its consumer society and new media, this appeal dimmed. Political attitudes also changed: a new spirit of revolt found Panofsky too traditionally humanistic, out of tune with the yearning for innovation and transgression. Moreover, untrained in the strict canons of Classical philology, many of the German polymath’s disciples experienced difficulty in emulating his achievements. Other problems reflected a changed emphasis in academia itself: a broader decline in the humanistic tradition gradually smothered the intellectual environment that had sustained his teachings, and within art history many felt that Panofsky’s disregard of contemporary art was short-sighted. A new pluralism in art history was fostered by other factors, including a sense that art and the study of art should be socially significant. As in other fields of the humanities, new influences came from a renewed interest in Marxism, psychoanalysis (see Psychoanalysis and art), Semiotics and the set of views known loosely as Deconstruction. This New Art History, as it is sometimes termed, was more an alliance of interests than a single doctrine (see §II below). Sustained study of the arts of Africa, Oceania and the Pre-Columbian Americas also began to flourish in the second half of the 20th century. After the 1960s, however, such scholars as Edward Said questioned the appropriateness of imposing Western standards on other cultures. The task of creating a universal history of art, first glimpsed by Hegel, had thus not been realized by the end of the 20th century.]

Dynes, W. R., & Mermoz, G. (n.d.). Art history. In Grove art online. Oxford art online. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. Retrieved from

Star shaped tile

Star shaped tile [Tile found in Edward C. Moore Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]. (a.h. 661/a.d. 1262–63). Retrieved from*&offset=0&rpp=100&pos=34

Girl with a pearl earring

Vermeer, J. (1665). Girl with a Pearl Earring [Painting found in Mauritshuis, The Hague, Amsterdam]. Retrieved from

Marble grave stele with a family group

Marble grave stele with a family group [Sculpture found in Rogers Fund, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]. (ca. 360 b.c.). Retrieved from

Hands of mother and nursing child

Nixon, N. (1984). (Hands of mother and nursing child [Photograph found in A. Shuman Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston]. Retrieved from

The Kiss

Klimt, G. (1908). The kiss [Painting found in Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna]. Retrieved from

Wreath of oak leaves and acorns

Wreath of oak leaves and acorns [Necklace found in Museum of Fine Arts, Boston]. (late classical or early hellenistic period 4th century b.c.). Retrieved from