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Understanding Art History

Understanding Art History

Author: Ian McConnell
Description:

This lesson will present an overview of the origins of art history.

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Tutorial

An introduction to Art History.

Video Transcription

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Hello. I'd like to welcome you to this episode of Exploring Art History with Ian. My name is Ian McConnell. And today's topic is part of an introduction to art history with a focus on understanding what art history is.

As you're watching the video, feel free to pause, fast forward, or rewind as many times as you feel is necessary, keeping in mind that this is an introduction, so things come kind of quickly. But don't get discouraged, we're going to be coming back to these things later on. As soon as you're ready, we can begin.

Today's objectives or the things you are going to learn are listed below. Today, by the end of this lesson, you'll be able to identify today's key terms, briefly compare and contrast the contributions that Pliny the Elder, Vasari, and Wincklemann made to developing what is now known as art history, and explain today's big idea correctly in your own words. You can always use my words, but it's better, I feel that it's better if you're able to expand upon what's written by putting things or the big idea in the language that you're comfortable with.

Key terms are always going to be listed in yellow. Today's key terms, there are five of them. First one is art history-- the academic study of the history and development of the visual arts. Methods, which are the set of rules or philosophy that informs one's approach to understanding art history. Pliny the Elder-- a Roman author and natural historian who included some of the earliest recorded historical descriptions of works of art in his writings.

The next key term is Giorgio Vasari-- an architect an artist whose Lives of the Artists was the most influential text of the Italian Renaissance. And Johann Wincklemann-- an 18th century German scholar who was the first to propose that works of art be analyzed as the products of the culture and time in which they were produced. The big idea for today is that there are different approaches to understanding art history along with the personal bias and methods play a role in how history is depicted.

So what is art history? If we take a look at the word here and rearrange it a bit, history of art really only explains part of it. There's more to art history than just names and dates. The biggest part of art history is really looking at the development of the visual arts and how what the artwork depicts is really a reflection of the cultural and social environment at the time of its production.

I personally like to think of art history as a really interesting way to learn about culture and history as it tends to bleed into other areas of academia, like anthropology, archaeology, and philosophy. There's a lot of crossover. And you'll see as we move forward that very few artists were simply just artists, that their interests extended into many different areas.

Our first individual-- Gaius Plinius Secundus, known as Pliny the Elder. And Pliny the Elder was a moniker given to him to help differentiate or help to separate him from Pliny the Younger, who was his nephew and adopted son. Pliny the Elder was born in 23 AD and died at 79 AD. He was Roman.

It is pronounced "PLIN-ee", not "PLAIN-ee." And he was a contemporary of Jesus Christ, to put him into a historical context. It doesn't mean he knew Jesus Christ. In fact, he probably never heard of him. But their lives, their lifespans crossed over.

And why do we care? Well, he wrote this book called Natural History. And in it, one of the sections was a section on art history, which was a first. It was the first time that somebody had actually documented important works of art. And it was a very influential book. So influential, in fact, that it was the reference well into the Middle Ages, over 1,000 years after it was written, which is a pretty amazing achievement.

Our next individual is simply known as Petrarch. There's a picture of him there. Born in 1304 and died in 1374. He was an Italian author and philologist-- that's a person that studies literature.

He lived, to put him in the context, he lived during the time of the "Black Death"-- the bubonic plague that killed about a third of the population of Europe. Known as the "Father of Humanism." And why do we care about him? Well, the contribution we're most interested in today is in how he really introduced this notion of distinct artistic periods or his work led to this conceptual awareness of distinct artistic periods.

And this idea is something that is common practice now-- we look for common threads in order to categorize things. We have periods like the Renaissance, the Baroque, Romanticism, et cetera. And these are categories of artwork, not just visual arts, but art work that share commonalities. The problem with his particular approach is that there is a slippery slope with any kind of generalizing.

And for Petrarch, it let led him toward making these broad assumptions that nothing happened during what he pejoratively referred to as the "Dark Ages," when, in fact, lots of things happened during this time. And Petrarch was avoiding or maybe just didn't realize that you need to take into account local customs and style. Petrarch also wasn't shy about his preference for the classics of Ancient Rome and Greece.

Our next individual is Giorgio Vasari. He was an Italian architect and artist. He was born in 1511 and died and 1574. He was a contemporary of Queen Elizabeth I and Michelangelo, the artist. He actually knew him.

Why do we care? Well, his book The Lives of Artists was the first biographical model of art history. It was the first book that was written from the perspective of the artist. It's still very influential today. If you take any kind of art history classes at the college level, you likely are going to have to buy it.

His first use in his work the term "Renaissance"-- he used the Italian word for Renaissance or "rebirth." And he had a bias toward Florentine artists. And he also had a tendency to include a lot of anecdotal bits in his work, which were interesting, but they tend to stray from the facts at times.

Lastly, Johann Wincklemann. He was born in 1717, died in 1768. He was a German author. And he died about 8 years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

And why do we care about him? Well, he proposed this idea of the cultural and chronological impact on art production. He was actually the first to suggest that there's a regional or national style to art.

His work also led to the formal adoption of art history or archaeology as true academic disciplines. And he had this classical idea that the goal of true artist is to produce beauty. And that this is achieved by adhering to certain principles and ideals, often at the expense of individual characteristics or often at the expense of realism.

So tying it all together. We've got these four individuals, three of which are our key terms that you need to know. First one, a key term shown by the yellow circle, is Pliny the Elder. And he was the first to formulate document Artistic Works. It started this idea of art history.

This led to Petrarch. He was born in 1304. And his ideas led to this conceptual awareness of distinct artistic periods. He had a strong bias for the classical arts, for classical work in general, and against what he erroneously referred to as the "Dark Ages," which sounds really scary.

Giorgio Vasari was an Italian artists and architect. His book on the biographies of artists was the first book written from the perspective of the artist themselves. And he had a bias toward Florentine artists, which showed up in its work. It was very evident in his work.

Finally, Johann Wincklemann. His ideas that culture and chronology had a strong influence on the arts, again, he was the first, really, to identify that there's a regional or national style to art. He also strongly favored classical ideals. And his work led to art history formally becoming an academic discipline.

Let's take a look at our objectives again and see how we did. After viewing the video, are you able to identify today's key terms? Briefly compare and contrast the contributions of Pliny the Elder, Vasari and Wincklemann made to developing what is now known as art history? And explain today's big idea correctly in your own terms, the big idea being that-- here it is-- there are different approaches to understanding art history and personal bias and methods play a role in how history is depicted?

Well, that's it for today. I'd like to thank you for joining me. And we will see you next time. Bye-bye.

TERMS TO KNOW
  • Art History

    The academic study of the history and development of the visual arts.

  • Methods

    The set of rules or philosophy that informs one's approach to understanding art history.

  • Pliny the Elder

    A Roman author and natural historian who included some of the earliest recorded historical descriptions of works of art in his writings.

  • Giorgio Vasari

    An architect and artist whose Lives of the Artists was the most influential text of the Italian Renaissance.

  • Johann Winckelmann

    An 18th century German scholar who was the first to propose that works of art be analyzed as the products of the culture and time in which they were produced.