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Art History: Reference & Introductory Sources

Duccio di Buoninsegna
Maestà; detail of central panel showing Madonna and child enthroned with angels
tempera and gold on panel

Architecture is inhabited sculpture. – Constantin Brancusi

Where to Begin

With thousands of years of source material, art historical research can seem intimidating at first, particularly if you're new to the field, or simply unsure of where to begin. In those cases, general reference materials and other broad-based resources can act as access points for more specific research concepts. They can provide concise introductions to a wide range of art historical topics, while helping construct a framework for further exploration.

Oxford Art Online
If you're not sure where to start, start here. Access includes:

  • The Grove Dictionary of Art and several Oxford reference sources on art and architecture. The Grove Dictionary of Art is the most complete encyclopedia of art available in English, featuring nearly 50,000 articles on a variety of topics including art movements, artists’ biographies, and countries. Articles are signed, include brief bibliographies, and images. Images are searchable and made available through Oxford’s partnerships with museums, galleries and arts organizations
  • The Benezit Dictionary of Artists, a comprehensive and definitive resource for artists’ biographies, published since 1911. It includes 149,000 biographies as well as auction records, exhibition histories, and over 11,000 images of artists’ signatures and stamps of sale
  • The Oxford Encyclopedia of Aesthetics
  • The Oxford Companion to Western Art
  • The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art Terms

The Gale Virtual Reference Library

  • Searchable database of several hundred subject encyclopedias and other reference works across all subject areas, but with particular strengths in the social sciences and humanities. It includes a number of major reference works, and is Northwestern’s largest single collection of reference materials. A good source for authoritative background information.


  • Kubikat is the collective catalogue of four of the leading German scholarly research institutes in the field of art history:
    • Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florence, Max-Planck-Institut
    • Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte in Munich
    • Deutsches Forum für Kunstgeschichte / Centre allemand d'histoire de l'art in Paris
    • Bibliotheca Hertziana, Max Planck-Institut für Kunstgeschichte in Rome

Art Theorists of the Italian Rennaisance

  • The database is a collection of treatises on art and architecture published between 1470 and 1775. It is structured around the two Italian editions of Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Artists

The Illustrated Bartsch

  • is the definitive collection of European master prints from 1400 to 1850, reflecting the history of prints and printing in Europe for over 400 years. Originally a 24 volume set begun in the 18th century, the Bartsch currently contains over 50 volumes (not including supplements and commentaries) and is planned through volume 166.

The Hollstein
is actually several separate serials devoted to woodcuts, etchings, and engravings:

The Corpus Rubenianum
Currently, 21 volumes on the work of Peter Paul Rubens


  • Worldcat connects you to the collections and services of over 10,000 libraries across the world. Essentially the word's largest card catalog, it can be invaluable in locating difficult to find resources.


The Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

  • Presented by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Heilbrunn Timeline is a visual chronology of art throughout history, supplemented by images and scholarly essays. It can be useful in understanding how different artistic movements are related in both time and geography.

Khan Academy's Smarthistory

  • Part of Khan Academy's mission is to "provide a free world-class education to anyone, anywhere." Smarthistory uses videos and text to tell the story of our collective cultural heritage from an art historical perspective. Narrated and presented by art historians, the nearly 2000 videos and essays provide an accessible introduction to a wide range of art historical topics.