Be sure to read the PDF and watch the video provided before this exerciseprovide a formal analysis of the following artwork from this week’s content,specifically noting at least 3 formal elements that significantly contribute to this work:Édouard Manet, “Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe (Luncheon on the Grass)” (1863, French Realism, oil on canvas)
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What is art history?
A thing of beauty is a joy forever
Can art have a history? We think about art as being timeless, the
‘beauty’ of its appearance having meaning, significance, and appeal
to humankind across the ages. At least this usually applies to our
ideas about ‘high’, or fine, art, in other words painting and
sculpture. This kind of visual material can have an autonomous
existence – we can enjoy looking at it for its own sake, independent
of any knowledge of its context, although of course viewers from
different time periods or cultures may see the same object in
Art appreciation and criticism
When we look at a painting or sculpture, we often ask the following
questions: who made it?; what is the subject?; when was it
completed? These are quite valid questions that are often
anticipated and answered in, for example, the captions to
illustrations in art books and the labels to works displayed in
museums and galleries. For many of us these pieces of information
are sufficient. Our curiosity about the who, what, and when of art is
satisfied and we can get on with appreciating the artwork, or just
enjoying looking at it. For those of us also interested in how,
information on the technique used – for instance, oil or tempera
(see Chapter 6) – might help us to appreciate further the skill
of the artist. The important thing to note about this kind of art
appreciation is that it requires no knowledge of art history. The
history of an individual work is contained within itself and can be
found in the answers to the questions who, what, when, and how.
These are the kinds of details that appear in catalogues of museum
and gallery collections or those produced for art sales, where
perhaps information about the original patron (if relevant) might
also answer the question why. Auction houses, museums, and
galleries also place emphasis on the provenance of a work of art.
This is the history of who has owned it and in which collections it
has been held. This acts as a kind of pedigree for the work and
might be used to help prove that it is an authentic work by a given
artist. All this information is important in determining the
monetary value of a painting or sculpture but need not necessarily
be important for art history.
In this way, art appreciation requires no knowledge of the context of
art; the ‘I know what I like and I like what I see’ approach to gallerygoing is sufficient. And this is absolutely fine. We can enjoy looking
at something just for what it is and art can become absorbed into
what might be called popular culture.
Art appreciation can also involve the more demanding process of
criticizing the art object on the basis of its aesthetic merits. Usually
aspects such as style, composition, and colour are referred to, and
more broadly reference is made to the artist’s other work, if known,
or to other artists working at the same time or within the same
movement or style.
Art appreciation and criticism are also linked to connoisseurship.
By its very name this implies something far more elitist than just
enjoying looking at art. A connoisseur is someone who has a
specialist knowledge or training in a particular field of the fine or
decorative arts. The specialist connoisseur may work for an auction
house – we have all seen how on television programmes such as the
Antiques Roadshow experts are able to identify and value all
manner of objects, not just paintings, on the basis of looking at
them closely and asking only very few questions of the owner. This
kind of art appreciation is linked to the art market and involves
being able to recognize the work of individual artists as this has a
direct effect on the work’s monetary value.
What is art history?
Another aspect of connoisseurship is its relationship to our
understanding of taste. A connoisseur’s taste in relation to art is
considered to be refined and discriminating. Our concept of taste in
relation to art is quite complicated, and inevitably it is bound up
in our ideas about social class. Let me take a little time to explore
this more fully. I have already discussed the practice of art
appreciation – art available for all and seen and enjoyed by all.
By contrast, connoisseurship imposes a kind of hierarchy of taste.
The meaning of taste here is a combination of two definitions of
the word: our faculty of making discerning judgements in aesthetic
matters, and our sense of what is proper and socially acceptable.
But by these definitions taste is both culturally and socially
determined, so that what is considered aesthetically ‘good’ and
socially ‘acceptable’ differs from one culture or society to another.
The fact that our taste is culturally determined is something of
which we have to be aware, and this crops up throughout this book.
Here, though, it is important to think about the social dimension of
taste as having more to do with art as a process of social exclusion –
we are meant to feel intimidated if we don’t know who the artist
is, or worse still if we don’t feel emotionally moved through the
‘exquisiteness’ of the work. We have all read or heard the
unmistakable utterances of these connoisseurs. But luckily their
world does not belong to art history. Instead, art history is an open
subject available to everyone with an interest in looking at, thinking
about, and understanding the visual. It is my intention in this
book to describe how we can engage with art in these ways.
History as progression
For art to have a history we expect not only a timeless quality but
also some kind of sequence or progression, as this is what history
leads us to expect. Our history books are full of events in the past
that are presented as part of either the continual movement
towards improvement, or as stories about great men, or as epochs
of time that stand out from others – for instance, the Italian
Renaissance or the Enlightenment. In regard to these kinds of
frameworks for thinking about the past, the history of art does not
disappoint. In the coming together of these two separate strands,
we see how history reorders visual experience, making it take a
range of forms. The most popular of these include writing about the
history of art from the point of view of artists – usually ‘great men’.
Alternatively, we find art historians have sought to define the great
stylistic epochs in the history of art, for example the Renaissance,
Baroque, or Post-Impressionism. Each of these traditions can be
written about independently of the others and they have provided a
backbone for histories of art. Here I use the plural since the results
of each of these ways of writing about the history of art are different,
placing different emphasis on what is important – in some cases the
artist, in others the work or the movement to which the work belongs.
The problem with concentrating on formal elements such as style is
that style itself becomes the subject of discussion rather than the
works of art. As we become preoccupied with marking out stylistic
changes, we have to use our knowledge of what came after the work
under discussion. The benefit of hindsight is essential here – how
else could we know that the beginnings of an interest in nature and
naturalism in the art of Early Renaissance Italy prefigured the
consummate achievements of artists of the High Renaissance in
this regard? Working backwards from the present imposes a line of
development of which the outcome is already known. In this way,
tracks or routes through the art of the past can favour certain
styles – this is certainly the case with classical art and its
Also, histories of art that focus solely on style can easily neglect
other aspects of an artwork such as its subject matter or its function.
It is possible to narrate a history of artistic style using
representations of the male and female body. This might begin with
the representation of physical perfection achieved in ancient times
by the Greeks. By the Middle Ages, however, there was little interest
in the naturalistic depiction of the human form. But by the
Renaissance period increased knowledge of human anatomy and
nature meant that art had become more ‘life-like’. But this kind of
history could also be told using representations of cats and dogs,
although most would agree that domestic pets have not been a
principal focus for artists over the last two millennia.
In the case of biographical histories, we look for evidence of youth,
maturity, and old age in the work of an artist. This works quite well
if the artist lived for a long time, but an untimely death does not
lend itself to this kind of narrative arch. Claude Monet’s (1840–
1926) early work The Poppy Field (1873) differs from the cycles of
pictures of the same object at various times of day he produced in
the 1880s and 1890s, as seen in his views of Rouen Cathedral (1894;
Fig. 1) or Haystacks (1891). But although we can see similar
preoccupations in the interest in light, shade, and colour as a way of
modelling form, these phases of Monet’s career stand distinct from
What is art history?
Yet style has played a significant role in the formulation of histories
of art, and it is only in recent years that the notion of stylistic
progress in Western art has been reassessed. Indeed, the emphasis
on style leads us to expect the notion of progression and constant
development in art. If we want art to represent the world we think
we see, then we can impose an expectation of a continual move
towards naturalism. But how do we then think about art that is not
interested in naturalistic representation? This kind of abstract or
conceptual art can be sidelined and deemed of secondary
importance – sometimes it is labelled ‘primitive’ or ‘naı̈ve’ art, with a
pejorative air. In many ways modern art confronts this prejudice,
but often provokes cries of ‘is it art?’.
his late works, such as the large-scale paintings of the lily ponds at
his Japanese-style garden at Giverny. This kind of biographical
approach isolates the artist from their historical context. We often
forget that Monet’s late works were painted in the early 20th
century – at the same time as Picasso was experimenting with
Evidence and analysis in art history
It is important to discuss what kind of archive art history can draw
upon, as the range of material used to construct these histories
extends well beyond the works themselves. For instance, history has
its documents, written records of the past; archaeology focuses on
the material record, physical remains of the past; whilst
anthropology looks to social rituals and cultural practices as a way
of understanding past and present peoples. Art history can draw
upon all these archives in addition to the primary archive of the
artwork. In this way, art history is the stepping stone into various
ways of interpreting and understanding the past.
What is art history?
Is there then a distinction to be made between the interaction of
art and history, and art history? That is to say that histories of art
can have a single focus on style or the work in relation to the
biography of the artist, where our expectations of a progressive
history are inflicted on the visual. What I am suggesting here is
that we turn the question on its head and put art in the driving
seat, so to speak. By using art as our starting point we can see the
complex and intertwined strands that make up art history. This
implies that art history is a subject or academic field of enquiry
in its own right, rather than the result of the rules of one
discipline being applied to another. I return to this point on a
regular basis in this book. I aim to set out how histories of art
have been constructed, to describe the ways in which we have
been encouraged to think about art as a result, and also to
introduce other ways of thinking about the visual in terms of
In contradiction to this, what is known as the ‘canon’ of art
regiments our understanding and interpretation of the evidence.
In this instance, the canon is artwork regarded by influential
individuals – not least connoisseurs – as being of the highest
quality. In art history the canon has usually, but not exclusively,
been associated with the ‘traditional’ values of art. In this way the
canon plays an important role in the institutionalization of art, as
new works can be judged against it. As such it is a means of
imposing hierarchical relationships on groups of objects. This
hierarchy usually favours the individual genius and the idea of the
‘masterpiece’. Moreover, the canon promotes the idea that certain
cultural objects or styles of art have more value (both historical
and monetary) than others. One of my principal interests in this
book is the impact of canonical works that are considered defining
examples of taste and of historical significance on art history.
I have been using the words ‘art’ and ‘visual’ almost interchangeably.
This raises another important question – what are the subjects of
art history? Traditionally, the history of art has been concerned
with ‘high art’. But a range of artefacts has been included in the
discipline, and these have changed over time. When talking about
the Renaissance, for instance, it is quite easy to confine discussion
to known artists such as Michelangelo or Raphael and to works of
painting or sculpture, or their preparatory processes such as
drawings. But the remains of the visual outputs of different cultures
and epochs are quite varied and invite a range of interpretations.
We are all familiar with the rock art of prehistoric times, but the
reasons behind its production and who produced it remain
enigmatic. We look at the cave paintings at Lascaux in the
Dordogne, France, and see in them hunting scenes – depictions of
everyday life. But rock art also includes abstract designs and shapes.
So could this kind of art have had a more mystical function? Some
argue that these images are the work of shamans – members of a
religious cult who used hallucinogenic drugs as part of their
practice of worship – and these images come from the unconscious
as a result.
In the case of non-Western art, everyday objects, sometimes
referred to as material culture, are the best evidence we have for
the artistic output of a given society. A Mayan vase (Fig. 2) may
well tell us something about the religious or social rituals, as well
as indicate the way in which artists chose to represent their world.
However, in later periods in Western art, vases – and other
everyday objects – have not always enjoyed such attention. Even
the exquisite designs on the soft paste porcelain of the Sèvres
factory or the classical scenes on Wedgwood vases take second
place to the high art of the same period – at least as far as art
historians are concerned. It is important to remember, however,
that ceramics and furniture were often considered more valuable
and prestigious possessions at the time of their production than
were painting or sculpture. So the emphasis and value we place on
high art may in fact misrepresent its significance in the eyes of
contemporaries. And the way in which art history can distort
objects in terms of their contemporary and present-day meaning
What is art history?
A different question arises if we look at ancient Greece. The world
inhabited by this civilization is seen as a high point in the history
of art. But most ancient Greek sculpture is known only through
Roman copies, a problem discussed in more detail later on in this
volume. And we have very little knowledge of ancient Greek
paintings. Partly in response to these gaps in our knowledge,
attention has focused on Greek vases, which even from as early as
800 bce were decorated. The plentiful remains of Greek vases
demonstrate a range of painting styles from the geometric
designs of the Archaic period through to the silhouette-like
bodies on Black Figure vases and the more painterly, fluid
representations of the human form on Red Figure vases. These
relics from the past are everyday objects, yet, perhaps due to the
paucity of specimens of high art, they are venerated examples of
ancient Greek art. Perhaps unsurprisingly, their history is mapped
against that of Greek sculpture and is the story of ongoing
development in the pursuit of the representation of human
2. Mayan cylindrical vessel decorated with the image of a dignitary
wearing a blossom headdress.
and significance is something I return to at various points in this
In recent years the term art history has itself come under question.
The so-called New Art History, now a generation old, sought to
reassess the way in which we think and write about histories of
visual objects. New Art History was particularly influenced by
theoretical ways of thinking about art to bring out its social,
cultural, and historical meaning. I discuss the various ways of
writing and thinking about art history in subsequent chapters; it is
enough to say here that the notion of works of art having historical
meaning beyond their role in the narrative of the work of great
artists or of styles of art was revolutionary. So much so that the
subject is still divided between ‘new’ and ‘old’ even 20 years later.
This book does not advocate either way of thinking about art
It is true that there is a difficulty in this relationship between the
verbal and the visual; they are both discrete methods of description.
This tension is further explored in the next chapter. We are perhaps
more familiar with the use of words to describe art, where one
system of articulation is brought to bear on the other. But we must
remember that this also works the other way around – the visual
can describe and represent the verbal, phenomena usually
expressed in words.
What is art history?
history. I see the merit of both approaches, and I very much want to
question the object, confront it, in order to explore its broadest
possible meaning and significance. But at the same time I do not
want to lose sight of the object itself – its physical properties, and
in many cases its sheer aesthetic appeal. After all, I am arguing
that art history is a separate discipline from history – the visual is
then its primary material, the starting point for any kind of
historical enquiry. Although it is important to be able to articulate
the appearance of a work of art, to describe and analyse the visual
using words is not an end in itself. And making this kind of visual
analysis is not always as easy as it sounds. Art history has its own
vocabulary, or taxonomic system, that enables us to speak precisely
about the objects we see in front of us, as can be appreciated from
the glossary at the end of this book. But the ability to discuss or
analyse a work of art, even using a sophisticated taxonomic
system, is not art history. Certainly, it is the act of accurately
describing a work, and this process may be intertwined with the
practice of connoisseurship, but this satisfaction with articulating
what is in front of us remains largely the preserve of art
appreciation. If we compare this practice to the study of English
literature, for instance, the point becomes clearer. We would
neither consider reading out the text of King Lear, nor a synopsis
of the plot of the play, the definitive analysis of this work by
Shakespeare. It may be that these processes are a necessary part of
the analysis, but they are not an end in themselves. Similarly, we
should not accept the description of an artwork as the end of the
process of study.
Elements of Art
The elements of art are the building blocks used by artists to create a work of art.
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