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20 Art History Terms to Help You Skillfully Describe a Work of Art

Analyze art like a professional with this art history glossary.

❶Jacob Burckhardt — , one of the founders of art history, noted that Winckelmann was 'the first to distinguish between the periods of ancient art and to link the history of style with world history'.

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The most renowned of these was Michelangelo , and Vasari's account is enlightening, though biased [ citation needed ] in places. Vasari's ideas about art were enormously influential, and served as a model for many, including in the north of Europe Karel van Mander 's Schilder-boeck and Joachim von Sandrart 's Teutsche Akademie.

Scholars such as Johann Joachim Winckelmann — , criticised Vasari's "cult" of artistic personality, and they argued that the real emphasis in the study of art should be the views of the learned beholder and not the unique viewpoint of the charismatic artist. Winckelmann's writings thus were the beginnings of art criticism.

Jacob Burckhardt — , one of the founders of art history, noted that Winckelmann was 'the first to distinguish between the periods of ancient art and to link the history of style with world history'. From Winckelmann until the midth century, the field of art history was dominated by German-speaking academics. Winckelmann's work thus marked the entry of art history into the high-philosophical discourse of German culture. Winckelmann was read avidly by Johann Wolfgang Goethe and Friedrich Schiller , both of whom began to write on the history of art, and his account of the Laocoon occasioned a response by Lessing.

The emergence of art as a major subject of philosophical speculation was solidified by the appearance of Immanuel Kant 's Critique of Judgment in , and was furthered by Hegel 's Lectures on Aesthetics. Hegel's philosophy served as the direct inspiration for Karl Schnaase 's work. Schnaase's survey was published contemporaneously with a similar work by Franz Theodor Kugler. A number of students went on to distinguished careers in art history, including Jakob Rosenberg and Frida Schottmuller.

He introduced a scientific approach to the history of art, focusing on three concepts. Firstly, he attempted to study art using psychology, particularly by applying the work of Wilhelm Wundt. He argued, among other things, that art and architecture are good if they resemble the human body. Secondly, he introduced the idea of studying art through comparison. By comparing individual paintings to each other, he was able to make distinctions of style.

His book Renaissance and Baroque developed this idea, and was the first to show how these stylistic periods differed from one another. In fact he proposed the creation of an "art history without names. He was particularly interested in whether there was an inherently "Italian" and an inherently " German " style. The first generation of the Vienna School was dominated by Alois Riegl and Franz Wickhoff , both students of Moritz Thausing , and was characterized by a tendency to reassess neglected or disparaged periods in the history of art.

Riegl and Wickhoff both wrote extensively on the art of late antiquity , which before them had been considered as a period of decline from the classical ideal. Riegl also contributed to the revaluation of the Baroque. A number of the most important twentieth-century art historians, including Ernst Gombrich , received their degrees at Vienna at this time. These scholars began in the s to return to the work of the first generation, particularly to Riegl and his concept of Kunstwollen , and attempted to develop it into a full-blown art-historical methodology.

Sedlmayr, in particular, rejected the minute study of iconography, patronage, and other approaches grounded in historical context, preferring instead to concentrate on the aesthetic qualities of a work of art. As a result, the Second Vienna School gained a reputation for unrestrained and irresponsible formalism , and was furthermore colored by Sedlmayr's overt racism and membership in the Nazi party.

Our 21st-century understanding of the symbolic content of art comes from a group of scholars who gathered in Hamburg in the s. Together they developed much of the vocabulary that continues to be used in the 21st century by art historians.

Today art historians sometimes use these terms interchangeably. Panofsky, in his early work, also developed the theories of Riegl, but became eventually more preoccupied with iconography, and in particular with the transmission of themes related to classical antiquity in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. In this respect his interests coincided with those of Warburg, the son of a wealthy family who had assembled an impressive library in Hamburg devoted to the study of the classical tradition in later art and culture.

Under Saxl's auspices, this library was developed into a research institute, affiliated with the University of Hamburg , where Panofsky taught. Warburg died in , and in the s Saxl and Panofsky, both Jewish, were forced to leave Hamburg.

Saxl settled in London, bringing Warburg's library with him and establishing the Warburg Institute. Panofsky settled in Princeton at the Institute for Advanced Study. In this respect they were part of an extraordinary influx of German art historians into the English-speaking academy in the s. These scholars were largely responsible for establishing art history as a legitimate field of study in the English-speaking world, and the influence of Panofsky's methodology, in particular, determined the course of American art history for a generation.

Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud wrote a book on the artist Leonardo da Vinci , in which he used Leonardo's paintings to interrogate the artist's psyche and sexual orientation. Freud inferred from his analysis that Leonardo was probably homosexual. Though the use of posthumous material to perform psychoanalysis is controversial among art historians, especially since the sexual mores of Leonardo's time and Freud's are different, it is often attempted.

One of the best-known psychoanalytic scholars is Laurie Schneider Adams, who wrote a popular textbook, Art Across Time , and a book Art and Psychoanalysis. For unknown purposes, Freud originally published the article anonymously. Carl Jung also applied psychoanalytic theory to art.

Jung was a Swiss psychiatrist , an influential thinker, and founder of analytical psychology. Jung's approach to psychology emphasized understanding the psyche through exploring the worlds of dreams , art, mythology , world religion and philosophy.

Much of his life's work was spent exploring Eastern and Western philosophy, alchemy , astrology , sociology , as well as literature and the arts. His most notable contributions include his concept of the psychological archetype , the collective unconscious , and his theory of synchronicity. Jung believed that many experiences perceived as coincidence were not merely due to chance but, instead, suggested the manifestation of parallel events or circumstances reflecting this governing dynamic.

His ideas were particularly popular among American Abstract expressionists in the s and s. Jung emphasized the importance of balance and harmony. He cautioned that modern humans rely too heavily on science and logic and would benefit from integrating spirituality and appreciation of the unconscious realm. His work not only triggered analytical work by art historians, but it became an integral part of art-making.

Jackson Pollock , for example, famously created a series of drawings to accompany his psychoanalytic sessions with his Jungian psychoanalyst, Dr. Henderson who later published the drawings in a text devoted to Pollock's sessions realized how powerful the drawings were as a therapeutic tool. The legacy of psychoanalysis in art history has been profound, and extends beyond Freud and Jung.

The prominent feminist art historian Griselda Pollock, for example, draws upon psychoanalysis both in her reading into contemporary art and in her rereading of modernist art. During the midth century, art historians embraced social history by using critical approaches. The goal was to show how art interacts with power structures in society.

One critical approach that art historians [ who? Marxist art history attempted to show how art was tied to specific classes, how images contain information about the economy, and how images can make the status quo seem natural ideology. Perhaps the best-known Marxist was Clement Greenberg , who came to prominence during the late s with his essay " Avant-Garde and Kitsch ".

Greenberg further claimed that avant-garde and Modernist art was a means to resist the leveling of culture produced by capitalist propaganda. Greenberg appropriated the German word ' kitsch ' to describe this consumerism, although its connotations have since changed to a more affirmative notion of leftover materials of capitalist culture.

Greenberg later [ when? Meyer Schapiro is one of the best-remembered Marxist art historians of the midth century. Although he wrote about numerous time periods and themes in art, he is best remembered for his commentary on sculpture from the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance , at which time he saw evidence of capitalism emerging and feudalism declining.

He attempted to show how class consciousness was reflected in major art periods. The book was controversial when published during the s since it makes generalizations about entire eras, a strategy now called " vulgar Marxism ".

Werckmeister, David Kunzle, Theodor W. Adorno, and Max Horkheimer. Clark was the first art historian writing from a Marxist perspective to abandon vulgar Marxism. These books focused closely on the political and economic climates in which the art was created.

Within a decade, scores of papers, articles, and essays sustained a growing momentum, fueled by the Second-wave feminist movement , of critical discourse surrounding women's interactions with the arts as both artists and subjects. In her pioneering essay, Nochlin applies a feminist critical framework to show systematic exclusion of women from art training, arguing that exclusion from practicing art as well as the canonical history of art was the consequence of cultural conditions which curtailed and restricted women from art producing fields.

Griselda Pollock is another prominent feminist art historian, whose use of psychoanalytic theory is described above. While feminist art history can focus on any time period and location, much attention has been given to the Modern era. Some of this scholarship centers on the feminist art movement , which referred specifically to the experience of women.

Often, feminist art history offers a critical "re-reading" of the Western art canon, such as Carol Duncan's re-interpretation of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Two pioneers of the field are Mary Garrard and Norma Broude. Their anthologies Feminism and Art History: Questioning the Litany , The Expanding Discourse: Feminist Art History After Postmodernism are substantial efforts to bring feminist perspectives into the discourse of art history. The pair also co-founded the Feminist Art History Conference.

As opposed to iconography which seeks to identify meaning, semiotics is concerned with how meaning is created. In any particular work of art, an interpretation depends on the identification of denoted meaning —the recognition of a visual sign, and the connoted meaning —the instant cultural associations that come with recognition. The main concern of the semiotic art historian is to come up with ways to navigate and interpret connoted meaning. Semiotic art history seeks to uncover the codified meaning or meanings in an aesthetic object by examining its connectedness to a collective consciousness.

Schapiro combined this method with the work of Charles Sanders Peirce whose object, sign, and interpretant provided a structure for his approach. By seeing the Mona Lisa , for example, as something beyond its materiality is to identify it as a sign. It is then recognized as referring to an object outside of itself, a woman, or Mona Lisa.

The image does not seem to denote religious meaning and can therefore be assumed to be a portrait. This interpretation leads to a chain of possible interpretations: What significance did she have to him? Or, maybe she is an icon for all of womankind. The artist is supplanted by the viewer as the purveyor of meaning, even to the extent that an interpretation is still valid regardless of whether the creator had intended it.

Mieke Bal argued similarly that meaning does not even exist until the image is observed by the viewer. It is only after acknowledging this that meaning can become opened up to other possibilities such as feminism or psychoanalysis. Aspects of the subject which have come to the fore in recent decades include interest in the patronage and consumption of art, including the economics of the art market, the role of collectors, the intentions and aspirations of those commissioning works, and the reactions of contemporary and later viewers and owners.

Museum studies , including the history of museum collecting and display, is now a specialized field of study, as is the history of collecting. Scientific advances have made possible much more accurate investigation of the materials and techniques used to create works, especially infra-red and x-ray photographic techniques which have allowed many underdrawings of paintings to be seen again.

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Skip to main content. The ability to apply basic art and art history terminology and tools. An appreciation for the artistic process as well as the importance of how art is displayed.

A knowledge of different types of art from prehistoric art, to Medieval art, to Expressionist and Modern art. The ability to understand and analyze works of art in context of historical evidence and interpretation. They will e able to examine issues such as politics, religion, ethnicity, patronage, and gender.

An understanding of the cross-cultural and global nature of art. The ability to perform higher thinking skills and articulate visual and art historical concepts in verbal and written forms. Students that take AP Art History should expect to cover art and art history as follows:


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The Art History AP course is designed to allow students to examine major forms of artistic expression relevant to a variety of cultures evident in wide variety of periods from present times into the past.

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Like any creative field, art history has its own language. While this can be overwhelming, a handy glossary of art terms can make analyzing a work of art a lot less intimidating. Whether you're familiar with the field or new to Art History , this list of terms will help you a master of art analysis. Free AP Art History resources organized by general topics. Each concept includes free example questions with detailed solutions.