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Art & Art History: Types of Sources

A research guide to finding books, articles, and other resources in Art and Art History

Primary, secondary, and tertiary sources in art history

To do research in any subject, you need to find primary, secondary, and tertiary sources.

Here are some examples of primary, secondary, and tertiary sources that you might consult for an art history research project:

  Primary sources Secondary sources Tertiary sources
What they are




  • Artworks
  • Statements by artists (or people close to the artists)
    • Diaries
    • Interviews
    • Letters
    • Memoirs
  • Historical documents from the time when the artwork was created.
How they help you They provide evidence to establish historical facts. They give you other people's analyses of the topic -- ideas and explanations that help you understand the topic in new ways. They introduce you to new concepts and help you find citable sources -- but are not themselves citable.


A good research strategy is to work backward -- that is, start with tertiary sources (overviews), which are easy to find, and use the clues in the tertiary sources to find secondary and primary sources.