Anyone who wants to study art history on their own outside a school, university, or another organized educational program currently has lots of options. From online articles to videos, books, virtual exhibitions, and even social media accounts, there have never before been more opportunities for interested learners to get an art history education outside of the classroom. However, structure is a little harder to come by, since the guidance offered by the traditional art history class is not readily available online. Except maybe here! What follows is my best advice for getting the most out of your art history self study.
Independent art history students may also benefit from my advice for college art history students, which will give you a sense of what’s covered in structured art history classes.
Advice for art history self study
Use objects to study ideas; don’t study objects for their own sake. Art history is all about the artworks (often referred to as “objects”), which should be at the center of everything we do. However, we don’t just study objects in isolation; we also use them to understand the larger ideas that go beyond any single artwork. Don’t simply aim to become familiar with Michelangelo’s David; use it to learn something about the many larger ideas it illustrates, such as marble sculpture, the Italian Renaissance, naturalism, the heroic male nude, or the influence of the classical past. This is a much more fulfilling way to approach art history than simply getting acquainted with a sequence of individual artworks.
Go beyond the famous. Your interest in a well-known artwork may be what inspired you to take up art history, but your experience will be severely limited if that’s all you ever explore. There’s a whole world of art out there, and the works you’ll end up enjoying the most are not necessarily the famous ones.
Learn from the experts. Your education is only as good as the quality of the information on which you base it. If you’ve going to spend the time and energy to learn about art history (or any other topic), make sure you’re using reliable information from knowledgeable sources. Learn art history from trained art historians, well-respected museums, galleries, and auction houses, and reputable publishers, not amateurs and general-interest websites.
Remember that historical and cultural context is key. Always pay attention to the context of an artwork and ask yourself how that’s reflected in the work itself. Quality art history resources will usually introduce you to the relevant ideas. Not only will your understanding of the artwork become richer when you appreciate it as a product of its time and place, but you’ll also learn so much about history, culture, religion, economics, literature, politics, philosophy, and our shared humanity in general. While it’s possible to enjoy art without knowing its relationship to its historical context, you’ll be missing so much of the good stuff in my opinion.
Realize that art history is not a science. Its rules are more like rules of thumb. We love to divide art history into a series of periods, styles, and movements, each with definitive characteristics and a clear timeline of progression. However, as products of the human imagination, art can’t really be categorized so precisely. Not every artwork in a style has all the characteristics style guides tell us it’s supposed to, and not every artist followed the general trends of their time and place. Generalizations help us understand the big picture in art history, so they’re certainly worth learning. Just remember that the real spectrum of art doesn’t always fit into these boxes.
Learn to think like an art historian. Art history is not nearly as much about what you know as it is about how you think. Therefore, it’s worthwhile to practice thinking like an art historian. Learn to analyze art in terms of its visual qualities, subject matter, and historical context. Practice forming interpretations that you could explain and defend to other people. Familiarize yourself with what makes a compelling art historical argument or how you can use the art history you know to draw conclusions about an artwork you’ve never seen before. This will get you so much further than simply memorizing facts, and you can use these skills far beyond the art museum.
Don’t forget to use your eyes. It’s easy to get so wrapped up in learning facts that you stop truly looking at the art in front of you. Don’t fall into that trap, because visual art and the enjoyment we get from it are the reasons we’re here in the first place.
Bonus: Best books for art history self-study
As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. However, I only recommend books that I have personally read and consider valuable and relevant to the topic at hand.
If you want an art history survey text, I recommend using SmartHistory, a really comprehensive online resource written and edited by art history professors. When I was in college, my textbook was Jansen’s History of Art, the Western Tradition, which has been the gold standard for generations. However, SmartHistory has a much broader selection of content, is updated regularly, and is totally free. I understand that some classes use its new ebook in place of a physical textbook now.
To learn the basic skills associated with art history, I recommend Anne d’Alleva’s Look! Fundamentals of Art History. You won’t need all these skills, like writing papers and taking tests, but there’s lots here that will benefit the independent student. The newest edition, which I haven’t seen personally, has a slightly different name. The next step up, d’Alleva and Michael Cothren’s Methods and Theories of Art History gets into the methodology of academic art history and might be helpful if you want to understand more sophisticated art writing.
To read about specific styles and periods in art history, I recommend anything in the Thames and Hudson World of Art series. They have loads of titles about everything from prehistoric cave painting to ultra-contemporary art, and I always find them to be very accessible and easy to read.