Essential Reading: History of Art – Marcia Pointon

CoverHistory of Art – Marcia Pointon


  • Engaging with art
  • Art History as a discipline
  • How art historians work
  • the language of Art History
  • the literature of Art History


Some notes:

Engaging with art

  • when discussing ‘I know what I like’ layperson mentality: “The terms ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are problematic for art historians who are more concerned with whether art works fulfil and satisfy the purposes for which they were created than whether they are estimable according to an assumed universal standard. Powerful constituencies in every society construct a notion of what is bets. This is called a canon.” p7
  • When going to museums and galleries we need to remember that what we are seeing has been curated specifically, decisions potentially made for reasons of finance, specie requirements or intellectual considerations. We need to be conscious of this and have in our minds questions around why certainly things are placed next to each other or labelled in certain ways and be critical of what we are seeing so that we may be ‘active participants in the collective process of looking’. (p8/9)
  • Looking is a matter of self-education. Many people spend very little time in front of each work of art because they are already acquainted with it through reproductions so may miss the extra information that standing in front of the art work in person would gain them. Reading the captions in the gallery can lead to complacency and lack of thinking on the part of the visitor as they assume this is the ‘correct’ (and only) way of interpreting & appreciating that art. (p9/10)
  • As I discovered myself, the book recommends several short visits to a museum (entrance fees permitting) rather than one long exhausting day. The book advises to plan the visit carefully and mix a bit of looking at things you already know about (from reproductions) with a bit of new things. p10
  • Basic equipment of art historians are pencil and notepad. Drawing and sketching help us develop a good visual memory. We need to learn to pose questions ‘even if no answers are immediately forthcoming’ (p11)
  • Organisations such as English heritage, national trust, Georgian society and Victorian society will provide information about buildings of interest in your area. (p13)
  • Many churches and country houses are closed oct-mar so writing in advance to the vicar, estate manager or curator to request permission for access. If possible choose a clear bright day, stained glass for example loses its brilliance in wet conditions (p14/15)
  • “A preliminary look at your chosen subject will not only help you to establish a visual relationship with it but will also assist in identifying the questions that need to be asked about it.” p15
  • “Photography is , like drawing and writing, a medium of communication. Whenever we record anything, however ‘objective’ we aim to be, we are interpreting and our medium (photography, pencil, ball-point) will mediate what gets on the record.”p16
  • When looking at architecture, you need to think about what the typical conditions for viewing that building are. Consider the weather, the season and the time of day. This is not something you would usually have to worry about when appreciating sculpture or paintings (unless they are outside). Also, at certain times of the day, the function of a building becomes more obvious, for example a school or an office block are different when busy. Another fundamental thing to consider is the relationship of exterior to interior. (p17)
  • When looking at sculpture you need to consider where the original intension of where the sculpture was to be placed. For example, architectural sculpture (such as the figures from the Parthenon) which were originally designed to be seen from below, at a distance, in sunny Greek weather are now seen much lower down under strip lighting in the British Museum. Their integration into the building design as a whole has been lost with the relocation. With both architecture and sculpture its important to walk around it and see it from all its viewpoints. (p18)
  • Installation art requires a different set of questions to be posed of it when it is not being seen in its original installation space, for example I saw Richard Wilson’s work 20:50 (1987) when it was installed in a wood panelled room, showing off the oils reflective properties much differently to where it is currently installed in a while room in the current Saatchi gallery (and it seems the steel walkway is now roped off so you cannot get the feeling of vertigo that walking down it and peering over the edge gave me).
  • Similarly performance art, is the most ephemeral because it often involves a one off live event (eg Marina Abramovic’s work in the 70’s). (p20)


Art History as a discipline

  • “History of Art is what is studied and Art History is the cluster of means by which it is studied” p21
  • Art historians do not have to practice making art to be good at what they do.
  • The canon is a long cumulative process of artists who have had influence on other artists and critical thinkers. There were no named great artists in the middle ages. We need to be asking questions about historical process not just relying on the canon. (p24)
  • The work of Botticelli (Mars & Venus, Sandro Botticelli, National Gallery London) was lost and rediscovered several centuries later in the 19th c suggesting that permanence in the canon is a fallacy. (p24)
  • The relationship of artists and history of art is a who way process, for example Francis Bacon’s Pope I, 1951, influences the way we think about Rahael’s Pope Julius II. (p26)
  • Oeuvre – the body of work of an artist (p32)
  • The last 3 decades has challenged the notion that a group of people work out the historical facts about works of art and another group interpret those facts. The idea of academic objectivity brings to bear the choice of questions which goes into fact finding. Art historians now recognise that reading paintings would produce different meanings depending on who is doing the reading.
  • Art history can involve questions of authenticity, what is considered ‘good’ given a certain context and to what use is that judgement put.
  • More recently the status of artists has become elevated and a signature can dramatically increase the market value of a piece. David Hockney’s FAX art challenges the very notion of originality and authenticity
  • One of the traditional characteristics of visual artwork has been it’s uniqueness, technology plays an important role in proving that, for example infrared photography of paintings, dendrochronology (counting the rings on wood panels to assess the age of the work) and other scientific measures can mean that often art historians are more interested in authenticating than interpreting. (p37)
  • Another interesting question is why do some images get reproduced and some don’t, and for what purpose. For example many works we only know though copies, eg Roman copies of Greek originals or Engravings of Renaissance art. (p38/9)
  • Recently there has been a lot of interest and interpretation of ‘the historical and metaphorical conceptualization of the body’. This came about partly because of structuralism of the 60’s and partly due to scholarly interested in human & biological sciences and the role of gender in different cultures. (p40)
  • One branch of Art History is concerned with changes of taste and how the history of art is constructed as a sequence of conceptualizations, one artist climbing on the backs of his predecessors. Eg Cimabue leads to Giotto, leads to Masaccio. Artists who do not contribute get left out eg Botticelli didn’t fit into Vasari’s view of Renaissance art so was ‘lost’ for centuries. p41/42
  • Historiographers is more Art Theory, in how artists view & write about their art. (p41)
  • An art historian working on Giotto might address how the artists composed his compartments, which subjects he selected and what pigments he used. An art historian interested in theory would, however, ask questions about narrativity itself, that is about what happens in story-telling how the things which are not said may be as powerful in communicating a series of ideas as the things which are said, how readers or viewers make sense of a whole from a series or partial clues that make up a story, why and how human subjects in the West at different times desire stories to be told, what the structural relationship between the beginning, middle and end of the story might be, and what different stories have in common with one another.” (p43)
  • ‘low’ art forms such as photo-journalism, video art, youth culture and graffiti now receive serious scholarly attention, eg Subway Art, M. Cooper, 1995 (p44) Mass culture is also a study, eg cheap methods of reproduction (like lithography), or the publics reception to artworks and exhibitions p51
  • Feminist Art History has encouraged a debate about women’s art practice and fairness of treatment and attention even in today’s society. It has revolutionised discussions about the role of women in the works of the canon. P44
  • Architectural historians are concerned with questions such as how the styles of buildings have changed, the relationship between the buildings appearance and its function, who paid for it, who used it, what it feels like as a 3D priced of art work. P46
  • Many architects have also been painters and sculptors eg Michelangelo. P48
  • The great house or planned public building, with its combination of architecture, landscape, and decorative art (as well as the paintings hung in its rooms), has frequently been seen as the total expression of a single philosophical, political and aesthetic point of view.” P48, eg Chiswick House near London.
  • “There exists no single line of enquiry we can label Art History” p51 In questioning What is art? we become philosophers rather than art historians.
  • Psychologists have helped to demonstrate the superior power of the visual images over the written or verbal description in arousing immediate and strong responses.” P54 Important propaganda value.
  • Pictorial documents can be misleading in looking at what people actually wore at that period in time. Eg Gainsborough painted sitters in the 18th C dressed in 17th C fancy ‘Van Dyck’- style clothes. P54 Photography is similarly not really to be trusted depending on the context the same image can be used to describe two things eg royal procession crowds or rioting. P55
  • Semiology – the science of signs
  • Close ties between art history and literary history, many artists, writers and musicians have been friends and influenced each other’s works. Eg Cezanne and Zola, Reynolds and Johnson, Titian and Aristo, Delacroix and Chopin P55
  • Also, painter-poets and poet-painters whose works needs to be considered as a whole eg William Blake. P57

P56 showed a picture of this image:


How art historians work

  • The appropriate training for a museum specialist is contentions because in recent years more emphasis has been laid on business management than actual historical knowledge (p58)
  • Responsible for writing histories of art, research and documentation. p60
  • The idea of an infrastructure of empirical research and superstructure of theory and interpretation is a falsification and results in a failure to recognise the difficult and complex relationship between an artefact and the meanings it generates” p61
  • Frequently the only way to understand the characteristics of a material is to physically try them out. P61
  • If we are interested in the still life paintings of Chardin or Matisse, it is well worthwhile ourselves trying to isolate or assemble a group of objects for a still life, moving it around, looking closely at it, working out how many different ways we might see it or how we could express our knowledge of the objects involved.” P62 Helps build uinderstanfiong of relationship of the objects re size, shape, function, colour and texture.

 Diagram Interrogating the work of art:


  • The diagram Interrogating the work of art (above) shows how one question can lead to another
  • The Painting as Physical object:
    • What are we looking at? The real physical painting or a reproduction?
    • For the 20th C the definition of a work or art is a complicated matter. Originals and reproductions cannot adequately describe what we’re looking out now as many artists use reproduction methods for their original works or art. For this reason many art historians avoid the term work or art altogether. P64
    • Medium – the materials a work of art is made from. P64
    • Condition or the work may also be assessed because many works have suffered damage or aging since they were originally made so may not look as it once did.
    • Photographic reproductions remove the element of the original scale of the work that only seeing the work in person can give you. P65
    • Sometimes the artist has specially made the frame to reinforce the statement of the painting, I saw several like this in the NPG. P65 eg William Holman Hunt had texts and other emblems on them.
    • Attributed to, or school of, who painted the picture? It’s a guestimate based on style or known works from that artist P65/6
    • Finding out when an artwork was painted is another guestimate unless studio logbooks or exhibition catalogues survive from the artists lifetime. Otherwise guesses are based on diaries, letters, critiques etc P66
  • The painting as text and its consumption:
    • We may interrogate and question its meaning as we would a text. P67
    • Context of the paintings may also change depending on who is viewing it and the context in which they see it, and what other if any, works are hung with it. P67
    • Is it a house or a castle? (suggests power relationship), Think of it hung in a ghetto or part of a collection which feature artists houses.

P68 is this painting, with a different title, in the book its called Landscape with the Castle of Het Steen

    • figurative paintings represent something from the world around us so analysis concentrates on what the various parts of the painting’s imagery seems to convey. for non-figurative we’d be discussing visual and sense-arousing qualities of pigment and colour as well as in relation to shape and forms which relate one to another. p69
    • The referent of the image is a thing in the image with point out the image represents rather than reflects the seen world. P69
    • “Dutch 17th C paintings have long been enjoyed and admired for the apparent clear and precise way they allow us to enter the domestic world of Holland in the 17th Such pictures can be taken as stories in paint” p69 The story is told through the details of the fold of a dress or various shades of gold and red throughout the painting without deliberate reference to its meaning.
    • However since we have no actual photographs of Dutch interiors we cannot take it as fact that these were not cunning illusions. For example a mirror could have been present in a seen but perhaps could also have been added by the artist because he wanted to show the other end of the room or wanted to show off skills of painting distorted reflections. P70
    • There could be other reasons, “In the 17th C, the mirror was a sign of vanity, a worldly attribute. We know that mirrors possessed meaning in the period because whole books were published containing precise instructions about this sort of sign language and testing writers and artist the meaning of certain images in conjunction with others so the presence of a mirror in the room may be an important clue to how the subject of the painting should be interpreted on a moral level” p70
    • For abstract works we wouldn’t be looking for a story, they may convey brutal strength or determination, waywardness or acquiescence or may have no such meaningfulness and operate via the langue of shape, line and colour. P71
  • The painting as possession
    • Important to identify myths of personalities. Most artists painted pictures for people and sold in their lifetimes. P72 Some, for example Rubens, led interesting lives full of political intrigue, continental travel and court diplomacy
    • History of painting also includes history as a piece of property. Eg patronage and tracking ownership
    • Artists account books, letters and contemporary documents, labels from dealers on the back of the paint (if its not been cut down or relined), sales catalogues and inventories
    • Both ascribed artist and title of paintings change over the years
    • Relationship of artists to target audience, person, group, general public, tells us important info about the times p73
    • illiteracy may place importance of visual communication unknown in our own times (eg middle ages) p74
    • in 18th & 19th C when academies had influence and prestige, artists painted in such a way that would been seen favourably by the judges of the public exhibitions p74 eg critics such as Diderot (18th C France) and Clement Greenburg (20th C America)
    • if the patron is a private individual questions of human relationship and finance arise. P74
  • “To what extent, if at all, the artists intentions are relevant to an art-historical enquiry is open to debate. For some it is the How of communication rather than the What that matters.” p74/5
  • Movements: “At worst, the term ‘movement’ in Art History is simply a lazy way of avoiding serious consideration of individual artists or of historical events. To say that Gericault was a part of ‘the Romantic movement’ is to place him in the 19th C with an amorphous mass of artists, writers and musicians generally believed to have subscribed to a vague artistic philosophy based on individuality and nature. This sort of art-historically Happy families is not very helpful.” P75 Art historians should ask why and how one group of people, one event or one work of art provokes such reactions, artistic, political, social or all three.
  • Up to page 76.


the language of Art History

the literature of Art History


Pointon, M. (1997) History of Art: A Students’ Handbook. (4th Ed), London, Routledge


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