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Researching Art and Art History: Exploring Art Topics


Where to begin?

All research begins with the language that you use to think about your topic. This language provides keywords, or the natural language you use to describe your research topic. The world of art is broad, and crosses many cultures and periods of history. Search for keywords by narrowing your focus to specific art Materials, Techniques, Movements and Styles, Periods and Subjects of art history.

Please note that you may find that, depending on the source or art historian, the terms Movement, Style, Genre and Period sometimes are used interchangeably. It can get confusing!

As you prepare your research, be sure to define and describe exactly what you mean, and include dates so that it's clear to your reader. (If your reader is your professor, make sure both of you have the same understaning of the terms.). Then be consistent in your use of the terms throughout your paper or presentation. For this Research Guide, we have included some broad definitions to help guide you.

Materials: The materials (or medium) are what artists use to create their works. Examples: oil paint, acrylics, ink, fabrics, watercolors, marble, clay, found objects, wood, thread, glass, bronze, dyes, paper, canvas, the human body, a wall or the side of a building. (Artists are always combining materials, and reminding us that anything can be a canvas!)

Techniques: Technique is how artists use or apply their materials (media). Examples: ceramic, fresco, tapestry, mosiac, painting, chine-collé, collage, sculpture, carving, decoupage, raku, photogravure, encaustic, illustration. (One work of art might include several materials and techniques.)

Periods: Prehistoric, Mycenaean, Hellenistic, Ancient, Middle Ages, Medieval, Renaissance, Modern, Contemporary.

Movements and Styles are typically specific artistic philosophies and stylistic tendancies embraced by artists during certain periods. Examples: Abstract Expressionist, Baroque, Rococo, Gothic, Expressionist, Cubism, Dada, DeStijl, Mannerism, Fauvism, Constructivism, Bauhaus, Art Deco, Futurist, Arts and Crafts, Surrealism, Pop, Romantic, Gothic, Symbolism, Op Art, Pastoral, Situationist, Genre, Humanist, Industrial, Harlem Renaissance, Barbizon School, Black Arts Movement, Outsider, Ashcan, Naive.

Subjects: This is pretty straightforward. What does the art portray? Subjects can include people, as in portraits, or a group of people, as in the peasants, who were the focus of some art movements. Figures from the Bible might be a subject. Nature or landscapes are examples of subjects, as is the "still life." Sometimes the subject is so abstract you might not recognize the subject.

Developing a Topic: An Example

In search of a topic

Study a work of art. Do some preliminary research and list the various keywords that come to mind when you consider the Materials and Techniques; the Movements and Genres; and, the Periods and Styles. Make note of any questions that arise from studying the piece. In this example, we have found several keywords and questions that might lead you toward an art or art history research topic.

Title: Portrait of a Cardinal in his Study (c.1519)

Artist: Italian portrait painter Lorenzo Costa, c.1459-March 5, 1535 (Who was Lorenzo Costa? What's his personal story and what were his political and religious influences?)

Subject: A portrait of a 16th-century cardinal and the 4th-century Biblical scholar, St. Jerome, seen through the window. (Is this a specific cardinal, a real-life person? Who is St. Jerome, and what is he doing? What is the symbolism of placing these two men together?)

Material/Technique: Oil and tempera painting on a poplar panel (Is there a reason why the artist chose these materials and this technique?)

Style/Period: Renaissance or 16th Century (What was happening politically and socially during this time that might have influenced the artist?)

Movement/Genre: Humanist or Humanism. Costa was a painter of the School of Ferrara-Bologna. These artists were called Ferrarese. (What is the philosophy of the Humanist Movement, and how does it manifest itself in this work of art? What differentiates Ferrarese artists from other artists?)

Image Source: The Minneapolis Institute of Art


Related Links:

Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History/ Metropolitan Museum of Art 


The Search for the True Face of Leonardo

The Secrets Lives of Paintings

Develop a Plan

Once you've decided on a topic, you'll need a research plan.

What are the key concepts of your topic?  Can you broaden or narrow your focus? Consider focusing on one or more of the following:

  • time period
  • place
  • specific event   
  • specific people

Does your topic overlap other subject areas such as anthropology, geography or political science?

Think of 2- 3 questions that you will need to explore.

  • Think about the history of your topic, and its categories.
  • Who are the key people? What did they do? Why did it happen?

Under each question, think about the following aspects:

  • What do you already know about your topic or issue?
  • What do you need to learn to better understand your topic or issue?
  • What kind of information resource might provide the answer to these questions?

    Consider your audience.

    • Who will read your paper?
    • Why will it be of interest to them?
    • What will be new to them?


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