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Define Art History
Art History as a Human Family Album
The Role of the Art Historian
Art Historians, Museums, and Technology
Art History in the Classroom
Goals for Teaching Art History
Correlating Art History and Social Studies
Traditional Art History Concepts and Questions

Define Art History

Art history is one of the four foundational disciplines of Discipline-Based Art Education (DBAE), along with art production, art criticism, and aesthetics. Through art history, we acquire knowledge about the contributions artists and art have made to culture and society over time. Art history provides the historical context in which all artistic achievement is considered.

Like all disciplines, art history has evolved, developing theories and methods to guide inquiry and analysis. This includes considerations of historical/cultural context, style, function, iconography, and provenance. Approaches for art history reflect changes in art education over the last thirty years. No longer is art history solely taught through "art in the dark."

"Art history provides the setting and context for a work of art and helps us understand the artist and the circumstances in which the work was made. Artworks reflect the times and cultures of the people who produced them. Art history provides a kind of timeline that shows how art has developed form early human history to the present. It also shows how artists have been influenced by previous artistic styles, by technology and social change and the like, and how these influences showed up in their artwork. . . . We understand today's art more fully when we can trace its development through time."

-in Brommer, G. (1988). Discovering Art History.

Art History as a Human Family Album

The discipline of art history can be compared to a family history recorded in a photo album. Many of us have looked at the pages of an old album and perhaps laughed at the ways family members have changed over time or looked at different ages. Sometimes we are totally dependent upon the photographs to tell us about relatives we have never seen in person. Our mothers, for example, may tell us about actual persons or events which we cannot share except through a photograph.

We clearly use collections of photographs as visual documentation of a family tree, preserving images, places and people important to the family history. The album is a complex record, not unlike the countless images produced by cultures in different times and places around the world. Sometimes art objects, like our family photographs, are all that remain of a culture. Art images throughout history could be described as documenting the human family album. The art historian is the keeper of the album, helping us sequence the art objects and guiding us in organized searches for possible contextual meanings.

The Role of the Art Historian

What do art historians do? Some teach in colleges and universities, some work as curators in museums, and some write scholarly or popular texts. Art historians may specialize in certain stylistic periods or movements, others may focus on one or more individual artists, and still others emphasize the significance of works of art in their cultural, social, political, or theoretical contexts. At times, issues of concern to art historians may overlap and integrate with those of concern to the art critic or the aesthetician.

Art Historians, Museums, and Technology

The development of museums some two hundred years ago first allowed the general public to view art. Today in a single afternoon in a museum we can experience a wide range of objects from different times and places. This increased access to art has also influenced art historians.

A wide variety of technological advances has provided easy access to images. Development of mass printing and the ability to reproduce images photographically revolutionized the discipline. In our time electronic images on the computer allow a vast new public the opportunity to experience works of art while also raising new concerns about copyright and reproduction rights.

Art History in the Classroom

Why should art history be included in schools? For many, the answer to this question is found in some of the same reasons for looking at the family photo album--for uniquely valuable experiences. Just as the old photographs in the album give us insight into another era, art images help us position ourselves in time.

Works of art act as windows to time and place. They help connect the past to our own experience. Meaningful learning is directly connected to understanding the self and others. Through significant art history experiences, students may also become more aware of themselves in relation to the family, the community, the country, and the world.

In Art History and Education (1993), Stephen Addiss and Mary Erickson suggest that art history offers:

"The chance to participate in the entire world of artistic expression: from prehistoric times to the present day, and from Africa, Asia, and Europe to our own towns, schools, and homes. In the process we will also discover that art history can be one of the most exciting ways to investigate the cultures of the world and their histories. . . As artworks from around the world serve as vehicles to understanding, art historical studies can help students begin to develop as students of the world" (pp. xvi-xvii).

Goals for Teaching Art History

Addiss and Erickson also propose four educational goals drawn from the discipline of art history:

  • Students learn how to use art-historical inquiry as a means to better understand our visual culture.
  • Students learn that America's art is diverse and has many ethnic, cultural, and religious roots.
  • Students learn that the art of the Western world has changed in many ways and for many reasons from ancient times to the present.
  • Students learn that art has been produced all over the world--in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe, North America, and Oceania.

Additional goals suggested by Addiss and Erickson extend into broader areas of education:

  • Students learn that aesthetic values vary from age to age and from culture to culture and that it is possible to respond aesthetically to a wide range of visual objects.
  • Students learn to recognize artworks as manifestations of values held in different cultures and at different times.
Addiss further suggests that art history may be uniquely suited for education applications, as it is "a field in which final answers are seldom possible and which, consequently, offers opportunities for free inquiry and independent conclusions."

Correlating Art History and Social Studies

In elementary and secondary schools, art history provides natural correlations to social studies, as art reflects the culture in which it is produced. Concepts of culture, historical events, chronological sequence, geography, and the use of time lines and maps are shared by both disciplines. By approaching the study of art history and social studies through works of art, students can:

  • Discuss and interpret visuals.
  • Compare cultures of the world.
  • Identify contributions of various cultures, past and present, to world civilizations.
  • Identify basic institutions common to all cultures.
  • Respect beliefs of other individuals, groups, and cultures.
  • Describe changes over time.
  • Differentiate between fact and fiction.
  • Make and interpret timelines.
  • Sequence events on timelines and chronologies.
  • Locate and gather information in reference works.
  • Locate geographic sites on world globes and maps.
  • Compare and contrast opposing viewpoints.
  • Organize and express ideas in written form.
  • Analyze information and draw conclusions.
  • Develop criteria for making judgments.

Traditional Art History Concepts and Questions

Attribution: Where, when, why, and by whom was an artwork made?

Style: Style refers to the distinguishing characteristics of a work of art that identify it as typical of an individual artist, culture, school, movement, or time period. Artworks may exhibit personal, national, and/or period styles.

Iconography: Iconography is the study of subject matter, especially the symbolic meanings of people, places, events, and other visual representations in an artwork, as well as the conventions attached to those images. Are there symbols in an artwork? If so, what do they mean?

Provenance: What is the history of the ownership of an artwork from the time of its creation to the present?

Function : What was the original purpose of an artwork? Why was it created? How was it used?


Addiss, S. and Erickson, M. (1993). Art History and Education. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Brommer, G.F. (1988). Discovering Art History. Worcester, Massachusetts: Davis Publications, Inc.

Chadwick, W. (1990). Women, Art, and Society. New York: Thames and Hudson.

Erickson, M, (Ed.). (1992). Lessons About Art in History and History in Art. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University.
The J. Paul Getty Trust. (1992). The DBAE Handbook: An Overview of Discipline-Based Art Education. Santa Monica, California: Dobbs, S.M.

Mittler, G. (1994). Art in Focus. Westerville, Ohio: Glencoe.

Rees, A.L., and Borzello, F. (Eds.). (1988). The New Art History. Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities Press International.

Slatkin, W. (1990). Women Artists in History from Antiquity to the 20th Century. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Stokstad, M. (1995). Art History. New York: Prentice Hall and Harry N. Abrams.