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ARTH 303: Methods of Art History with Suzie Kim: What to look for

What to look for

Clip art of a magnifying glassThe syllabus says this about your annotated bibliography:

“You must include primary sources, monographs, scholarly books, articles from scholarly journals, museum catalogues, book/catalogue reviews, and sources from outside the discipline of art history, such as history, anthropology, literature, or any other field your topic touches upon.”

Let's break this down. What types of sources, exactly, should you look for?

Here are some types of sources that will be useful for this class:



Primary 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 one day.

Below is my advice for finding various types of sources.

Books that cover the history of a theory

Clip art of a clock, with a counterclockwise arrow suggesting going back in timeTo find books that cover a history of theory, search for that theory in Quest. (If you're lucky, you might also find articles about the history of your theory, but you're more likely to find books.)

What should you type in the search box?

  • Start with the obvious: the name of the theory.
  • Then, go back and search for 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. For this reason, I don't recommend using the word "art" in your search. That's too narrow, and might miss some important items.

A theory's foundational / essential works

Clip art of a pyramid, showing three distinct levelsEach 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.
  • Step 2: Using Quest and/or WorldCat, search for the names and titles that you wrote down.

Examples of scholars applying theories to artworks

Clip art of a mortarboardHere are some examples of theories used in art history. I've taken these examples from the course syllabus:

  • Formalism
  • Style and periodization
  • Iconography / iconology
  • Social history of art / Marxism
  • Structuralism
  • Semiotics 
  • Feminist theories
  • Gender studies
  • Queer theory 
  • Disability theory
  • Postcolonial theories
  • Psychology and perception
  • Post-structuralism

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 textbooks. Methods and Theories of Art History by Anne D’Alleva cites lots of particular examples. It's a good idea to find those examples (using Quest) and read them.

However, you don't have to limit yourself to the examples cited in D'Alleva! You can use Quest and/or the art history databases to find lots of other examples of scholars applying a given theory to artworks.

If you use Quest, remember that Quest covers all fields, 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

clip art of two speech bubblesYour 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 significance of the Virgin Mary in Christian art.
  • Geological information about marble, which is the medium of this sculpture


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

Here is a two-step technique to help you think of other things to type in search boxes. We will practice these techniques 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 scholar of religious studies. 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 Quest and/or 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.

Primary sources

Clip art of a scrollPrimary sources are historical documents that provide evidence from the time period you're studying. Examples include diaries, letters, interviews, memoirs, government records, and newspaper articles. An artwork itself could also be considered a primary source, but for this class you'll need more evidence than just an artwork itself.

Here is the library's guide to finding primary sources. It was created for History students but is also useful for Art History students.