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Art and Architecture History: Getting Started

Northwestern University Library's resources on art history include art, architecture, design, fashion, animation, photography, and related areas.

Doing Art History

  Corot painting at the AIC                      Mayan stele at AIC                      FLW fabric at the AIC                      Tang horse at the AIC

Images above in the Art Institute of Chicago collection. From left to right: |  Oil on canvas mounted on board painting by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot  |  Limestone stela created in the late Maya culture  |  Rayon and silk, plain weave, screen printed panel for The Taliesin Line of Frank Lloyd Wright  |  Earthenware with polychrome pigments sculpture from the Chinese Tang dynasty  |  

Doing Art History

Research in art history most often begins with a work of art—or a group of art objects—or with an artist, or the makers of works of art.

Whether writing a term paper, a thesis, a scholarly essay or journal article, an exhibition label, a catalogue, or a monograph, the place all art research begins is with the art itself.

The first step in an art history project is to spend time looking at the work you are researching.
Where did you encounter the object or group of art objects?
Do you own it, or is it owned by someone you know?
Did you come across it in a museum or gallery setting?
Or have you seen an image of it—online, in a book, during a lecture?

If you can look at an object in person, or even hold it in your hands, do so often; if you only have access to a reproduction, look carefully at the image whether it's in a print or digital format, reminding yourself that you are looking at a reproduction. Take notes on what you see and observe, and list questions you have about the artwork in front of you. Already, you are doing art history.

Next Steps

After you have spent some time looking at the art work you are researching:

  • Make an initial list of additional information you know about the work. Depending on where you encountered the object, more information may be very close at hand. If you saw the work in a a museum or gallery setting, look at the label beside the work on the wall or in the exhibit case, and look at the museum or gallery's website to see if more information is included there. If you encountered the work in a book, look at the captions under images of it, and read the related text. If you or someone you know owns the work, see if you can find a sales receipt, a label or tag on the object, or a gallery or auction catalog entry or about the art work if it was acquired at an auction or from a gallery.
    Basic information for this initial list usually includes the object's dimensions (its size, how big or small it is), materials (what it is made of), date (when it was created, if known--approximate or exact), maker (who was the artist, if known), and provenance (history of who has owned the object, and how it got to be located where it is now).


  • Consult the reference works that relate to your topic to deepen your background and understanding of research that's already been done in the area. (See the Reference Works tab above.)


  • Make a list of books, essays, articles, theses, and websites or digital projects that other people have written on your topic that could potentially relate to your research. Keep citations for these in a single, organized place. (See the Books, Articles & Databases, and Other Resources tabs above.) 


  • Start collecting images for your research, beginning with an image of the work or works of art you are studying. If you encountered the work in a book or online, duplicate and save the image you saw there. If you saw the work in person in a gallery, find out if the institution has published an image of it in print or online. Find out if you need permission to photograph the object yourself, and do so if you can. (See the Images tab above.)

Guide by:

Karyn Hinkle
Art Library
Martin Reading Room
3rd floor of Deering Library
Website / Blog Page

Writing for Art History

For those new to art history (and for general inspiration for everyone) discipline-specific guides to art research and writing about art can be very useful. Here are a few, and places to find more:

  • Marjorie Munsterberg has a wonderful guide online, Writing About Art, which comes highly recommended by academic art history departments, including Northwestern's. Geared toward undergraduate art history students, this work explains in very clear detail exactly how to research and write an art history term paper.


  • A classic text on writing about art, first published in the early 1980s with many later editions and still an excellent guide, is Sylvan Barnet's book A Short Guide to Writing About Art. This work is one of the classics of the field.


  • For a more historiographical approach (how art historians have done and could do art history), and for its descriptions of what exactly we mean when we say "art," I like Anne D'Alleva's book How to Write Art History (2006). It describes writing for art history exams as well as term papers.


  • There are almost countless other guides to writing about art. To find your favorites, browse the library catalog for subject headings such as Art -- Research and Art Criticism -- Authorship, or browse the library shelves in sections 707.2 (Dewey classification numbers) or N 85 (Library of Congress classification numbers). Ask us to show you where to find them in the Art Library.
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