The Origins of Art History as a Discipline

By Riley Wilber

Given that we are mid-way through revision week, I have decided to turn my focus towards the history of studying art. The “father of art history”, Giorgio Vasari worked in Florence in the late Renaissance. While he was accomplished in both art and architecture, Vasari is most notably remembered as a documenter of artists from Cimabue to Michelangelo. Our studying of art has come far from Vasari’s Lives of Artists, but we shouldn’t negate his influence because “the use of textual evidence, the close examination if works of art and the study of drawings as a key to the creative process” are a core feature of art history in our age. From Vasari emerged many imitators. In the late 16th century Karel van Mander analyzed northern European art. In France around 1666 Andre Felibien published Conversations on the Lives and Works of the Most Excellent Painters, Ancient and Modern, championing Nicolas Poussin as the best painter. I am sure you get the point; Vasari sparked the creation of a discipline that we continue today.

            The art history we study however, finds its foundations in the19th century. After the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century, writers began to move away from Vasari’s model to create something new, usually found in the universities in fields such as philosophy, history and archaeology. The 19th century brings a vast array of new methodology and ideas such as those by Alios Rieg who believed “universal laws governed the history of art and that each period is characterized by particular versions of those laws”. The different historiographies regarding art of a period are varied coming into the Age of Anxiety. Because as art diverges further from the art of the academy, so do the opinions of those who study it. Coming into the 1970s, a “new” art history developed. Among other things, this movement brought in females. Many women art historians such as Linda Nochlin, Griselda Polluck, Mary Garrard and Norma Broude focused on feminist issues. Furthermore, recent art history has spread its scope beyond Western art to the art of Africa, Asia, the Americas, and the Pacific. Art history is a discipline that has evolved greatly in the last fifty years. It looks to greater understand different periods through artists, their works, and perceptions of beauty.