Introduction to art historical research

Research for an art history paper can be challenging and intimidating. At first, it might seem like trying to find your way in total darkness to an unknown destination. Fortunately, there are a number of tools to help you negotiate the journey. These tools are the art historical equivalents of flashlights, maps, and road-signs, to help you find your way to an intellectual destination. If you learn how to use them, then research can become challenging and satisfying.

Before describing those helpful tools, let's start with some general expectations for art historical research. A major objective in art history research is to become informed. You want to find out as much as possible about the research theme, and about what others have said about it. In other words, after you have a topic of research, before you can create your paper's thesis, you must find many sources.

Sources are what we call the general category of published treatments of your theme -- they may be in a journal article, in a specialized encyclopedia, in a book, or on a website (each of which is discussed in more detail below). The first real challenge of doing research is an Easter-egg-hunt for sources. And the beauty of it is, each time you find one source, you'll find many more packed inside. That's because every scholarly article will have footnotes and bibliographic references to more sources on the topic. So one source will invariably lead you to many more. Even if you dislike or dismiss a particular author's thesis, the sources he or she cited may be invaluable.

Let's take a hypothetical research topic: suppose a donor appears at the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum/Art Gallery, and donates five paintings. They were painted, you are told, by Ludmilla Schlipalotte (shhlip-uh-lot), a mid-nineteenth century painter of the Hutsen Stream school. The paintings are still in ornate gold frames with little etched label-plaques tipped into the bottom register of the frames. Among the five paintings, there are a pair of landscapes labeled "If Hoosick Falls Fell," and "When Glens Falls Falls." A third has an allegorical/mythological subject matter: "Gansevoort Ganymede." Two belong to a series called "Prayers from a Hunting Blind," namely: "Deerly Beloved" and "Staggerlee."

Now, let's suppose you are in an American art class, and are given the assignment to research these paintings for your paper topic. What procedure should you follow in doing research on these paintings? The first thing you might want to do is look at the paintings long and hard. (See observation and description webpage.) That way, you will get a sense of the aesthetic quality of the work, the compositions, uses of color, figural conventions, etc. You want to have the paintings in your head as you start doing research, so you recognize them, or related works, as you go.

Then, as you begin to do research, what kinds of things would you want to know? Lots of things. Some obvious ones are: something about the artist; something about the style of the paintings; about techniques and materials; about the themes of the paintings; about the references made in the titles to classical allegories (Ganymede) and to local places; about the Hutsen Stream school and Ludmilla's place in it; about the original buyers and subsequent owners (the "collection provenance"); and about their exhibition record during the artist's lifetime, and subsequently. You would want to know how these paintings fit into Schlipalotte's oeuvre, and how they compare to the works of her contemporaries -- her sister Lucinda was also a painter it seems. Basically, you will want to find out as much as possible.  You would want to know about the historical and social events and patterns into which the artist and the works fit, how or if they reflected or transformed contemporary life.  Then, once you're informed about the overall background, you can focus on one or more of the most interesting aspects.

Although you might feel like your topic -- in this case Ludmilla Schlipalotte -- is relatively obscure, never assume that little or nothing has been written on your subject. If, after preliminary foraging around in your textbook or the Scribner Library index, you find next to nothing, do not assume nothing relevant has been written about her. A word to the wise: think twice before writing in your paper, "This topic has not been discussed by historians ever before; there were no sources about it." That just tips off your professor that you haven't done any serious research. You might have to dig to find it, but fortunately or unfortunately, we are rarely in a position to do truly ground-breaking original research. Lots of smart people have been traveling these paths before us. This is not to say that you might not have some new and important insight, but someone (and usually many ones) has invariably dealt directly or indirectly with your topic before. The trick is to find their publications, and then understand and extend their insights.

Where do you start?

Try one of the following topics within this site: research resources or process of writing an art history paper.

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