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ARTH 303: Methods of Art History with Julia DeLancey: What to look for

What to look for

Clip art of a magnifying glassYou already know that you need to find primary and secondary sources -- but what types of sources, specifically, should you look for?

In the assignment description for the initial bibliography assignment, Dr. DeLancey asks you to find these specific types of sources:

Finding all these sources will take time. You'll need time to do searches, time to browse the shelves, and time to read what you find. And, after you do some reading, you'll probably want to go back and do more searches, using what you learned. This is normal! Just give yourself plenty of time, and don't expect to find everything in a day.

Below is my advice for finding some of the types of sources on Dr. DeLancey's list.

Sources that cover the history of your theory

Sources about the history of your theory are likely to be books. Find them by searching for your theory in the library search box. (If you're lucky, you might also find articles about the history of your theory.)

  • What should you type in the search box? The name of the theory is a good option. You might also type in the titles of specific books, which are listed in D'Alleva and other textbooks.

Bear in mind that many of the theories used in art history are also used in other disciplines, such as literature criticism. So, try your search without the word "art." Then, try it again with the word "art."

A theory's essential or foundational works

Each theory has a history. Each theory was created, and modified over time, by particular people. If you discover who these people are, then you can find their original writings (books or articles). Even though these writings are old, they're important, because they defined or redefined the theory that you're using.

Here are two steps to finding these writings:

  • Step 1: Read about the history of your theory, and write down the names of important thinkers and the titles of important writings.

Examples of scholars applying theories to artworks

Here is the list of theories that you can choose from for your assignment:

  • Iconography 
  • Reception theory 
  • Marxist theory (social history of art)
  • Semiotics 
  • Feminisms
  • Gender Studies
  • Queer Theory 
  • Disability Studies 
  • Postcolonial theories

No matter which theory you choose, you'll need to find examples of scholars applying that theory to artworks (a particular kind of secondary source).

To find these examples, the first place you should look is in your textbook. Methods and Theories of Art History by Anne D’Alleva cites lots of particular examples. It's a good idea to find and read those examples, using the library.

However, you don't have to limit yourself to D'Alleva's examples! You can search the library or search the art history databases to find lots of other examples of scholars applying a given theory to artworks.

If you use the general library search box, remember that it covers all subjects, not just art, so you have to specify that you want articles about art. For example, you might search for disabilit* AND art.

Sources that give perspective from a discipline other than art history

Your first instinct may be to find sources by art historians about your chosen artwork. That's a good starting point, but for this assignment, it isn't enough.

For example, if you're researching Michelangelo's Pietà, you might type "michelangelo" and "pieta" into a search box. This is a good starting point, but don't stop there! You should also look for sources from various disciplines, including sources that don't mention the Pietà, so that you can understand the context of the artwork.

For example, you might search for:

  • Biographical information about Michelangelo
  • Architectural information about St. Peter's Basilica (the location of Michelangelo's Pietà)
  • Historical information about Renaissance Italy
  • Religious information about the meaning of the Virgin Mary in Christianity.
  • Geological information about marble, which is the medium of this sculpture (thank you to Professor DeLancey for this example!)


How do you think of these other perspectives? How do you know what else to search for?

Here is a two-step strategy to help you think of other things to type in search boxes. We will practice this strategy in class.


Step #1: Read tertiary sources, and take notes

Tertiary sources are the quickest and easiest way to discover the context that an artwork exists in. I recommend that you read several tertiary sources, not just easy sources such as Wikipedia or Smarthistory.

Here are some tertiary sources you can consult. Look for articles about the artwork and articles about the artist.

Take notes on what you read! Write down any interesting clues so that you can type them in search boxes later.


Step #2: Ask yourself questions, and then find expert answers

Imagine that you're a detective who's been hired to do a full investigation of this artwork. You know the basic details already. Ask yourself... what don't you know?

To get a complete understanding of an artwork, our imaginary detective would need to interview lots of different people. For example, if the detective were researching Michelangelo's Pietà, they might interview a historian, and a geologist, and an architect, and a religious studies scholar. Each is a different type of expert, and each would have something different to say.

So, think of different kinds of experts, and then use the library databases to find what they have to say. For example...

  • ...if you want a history perspective, you could use a history database and search for "Renaissance Italy"
  • ...If you want a geology perspective, you could use a geology database and search for "marble"

...and so on.

It's hard to think of all the different fields that a person can be an expert in. You can get ideas from this Wikipedia page.