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Art history: beginning research

Last Updated: 2-Mar-2015

As with any specialized discipline, art history bears its own literature, its own writing and publishing conventions, its own methodologies, and its own theoretical trends. This guide is meant to serve as an introduction for students who are new to the field. Standard sources for researching works of art in the Cantor Arts Center and Anderson Collection begin this guide. What follows includes lists of survey texts, basic texts treating specific topics within art history (Modern art, Asian art, etc.), and writing and style guides. It also includes an introduction to the various literature types: exhibition catalogs, catalogues raisonné, collection catalogs, monographs, artists' books and ephemera. The last section of this guide provides tips for researching a work of art and concludes with a list of art databases.

Subject Librarians

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Cantor and Anderson collections

  • In doing research for objects in the Cantor Arts Center, begin with a search in the Cantor Collections Database . Many object records include bibliographical references which will lead to more information about your object.

  • For the Anderson Collection, these two collection catalogs will help you get started:


Collection catalog published on the occasion of the opening. Features three essays on the Anderson Collection and seven focus essays on individual works in the collection. Includes a chronology of the collection, list of exhibitions and checklist.
[San Francisco] : San Francisco Museum of Modern Art [in association with] the University of California Press, Berkeley, c2000.
Art & Architecture Library (Bowes) » Reference » N6488.5 .A53 C45 2000 F
Arranged by school and and medium, this works includes essays about nine individual artists and on occasion, a specific work, such as Lucifer by Jackson Pollock and Collection by Robert Rauschenberg. The collection catalog at the end of the volume, arranged alphabetically by artist, and then chronologically by work, includes exhibition history and references.  

For further search tips, consult Researching a Work of Art

Call numbers

N = Visual arts
NA = Architecture
NB = Sculpture
NC = Drawing/Design
ND = Painting
NE = Print media
NX = Arts in general
TR = Photography
TS = Manufactures/Design
TT = Handicrafts

Subject headings

The Stanford University Libraries--like most libraries in the U.S. and even globally--use Library of Congress Subject Headings as their means of categorizing books according to subject in a standardized way (referred to as "controlled vocabulary"). Catalogers assign these headings using prescribed rules for format, but their actual choices of headings are based on their personal understanding of a book's subject. What this means is that searching on a single subject heading will almost never retrieve all of the books a library owns on that subject. Therefore it's often good to experiment and see what other related headings exist and to look at the headings that have been assigned to a book you want to find more like. The Library of Congress provides a discussion of subject headings here.

Tips for searching SearchWorks using subject headings:

If you are reviewing a record in SearchWorks and find one of its subject headings useful, simply use it as a hyperlink. But keep in mind: catalogers often augment subject headings by adding subheadings that make them more specific--e.g., a geographical term, a time period, a format. Where you click on a subject heading's link will determine how much of the compound term is included in your new search.

Try it:  Architecture > Composition, proportion, etc. > Textbooks.

If you don't know the specific subject you're looking for but have a general idea of what it might be, start by restricting your search to the Subject field. Then pick some terms that you think might appear in the subject heading of an item you'd be interested in.

Try it:  If you're looking for books about the depiction of women in Medieval art, simply try typing the keywords "women," "Medieval," and "art" into the Subject search box. Here is the result. Open a few records and look at the subject headings. Notice that often one keyword belongs to one heading, while a second keyword belongs to another. Subject headings tend to work well in combination, since books' topics can be quite complex.

Literature types

The literature of art history is divisible into several categories: monographs, collections of essays or interviews, catalogs of various sorts, individual articles and essays, and artists' books and ephemera. An understanding of each category is elemental to designing a comprehensive and efficient research strategy.

Introductory surveys

In addition to individual annotations, the following provides a summary of three main introductory surveys. The Gardner surveys are more textbook-like than Janson. The 14th edition of the Gardner Global History book provides a lot of information in a readily accessible form.  Both Gardner and Janson include supplemental information on material and technique, include timelines and lengthy bibliographies. Janson includes snippets of primary source texts and a methodology feature called The Art Historian’s Lens. One might characterize Janson as the more “scholarly” and Gardner as more yeoman-like. Stokstad is geared for the undergraduate student without any previous knowledge of art history.

14th ed. Australia ; United States : Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, c2013.
Art & Architecture Library (Bowes) » Reference » N5300 .G25 2013 F
14th edition includes a new feature highlighting a single work in a “Framing the Era” essay and a timeline at the beginning of each chapter. "The Big Picture" overview with thumbnail images  at the end of every chapter summarizes important points.  Revised chapter on contemporary art is now global in scope. Expanded bibliography (19 pp.) of English-language books and complete museum index listing all illustrated works by their present location.
13th ed. Boston, MA : Wadsworth/Cengage Learning, c2010.
Art & Architecture Library (Bowes) » Stacks » N5300 .G252 2010B F
New features of the 13th edition:  Quick-Review Captions provide brief synopses of the important aspects of each artwork or building. Within each chapter, the "Framing the Era" overviews, a new timeline, and the chapter-ending section entitled "The Big Picture", assist in understanding the cultural and historical forces that influenced each artwork. Lengthy (12pp.) bibliography of English-language works only.
13th ed. Boston, MA : Wadsworth/Cengage Learning, c2010.
Art & Architecture Library (Bowes) » Stacks » N5300 .G252 2010 F
Introduced in 2006, the 13th edition surveys the art and architecture of Asia, Native America, Africa and Oceania from prehistory to the present. Includes Quick-Review Captions and “The Big Picture" overview at the end of every chapter as seen in the other Gardner publications, see above. Scale feature is included with each illustration to better understand object size. Short (5 pp.) bibliography of English-only books.
8th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ : Prentice Hall, c2011.
Art & Architecture Library (Bowes) » On reserve: Ask at circulation desk » N5300 .J29 2011
Eighth edition, rewritten and reorganized. Includes a chapter on Islamic art and its relationship to Western art. Focus is on the object and on its creator. This edition maintains an organization along the lines established by Janson, with separate chapters on the Northern European Renaissance, Italian Renaissance, High Renaissance, and Baroque art, with broad stylistic divisions for the modern era, e.g. The Age of Positivism: Realism, Impressionism, and the Pre-Raphaelites, 1848-1885.  Chapters include short features entitled The Art Historian’s Lens to provide an understanding of art historical methods. Lengthy bibliography.
4th ed. Boston : Prentice Hall, c2011.
Art & Architecture Library (Bowes) » Stacks » N5300 .S923 2011
The authors strive to balance formal and iconographic analysis with contextual art history. Each chapter includes short features that highlight context, technique and elements of architecture.

Subject-specific surveys

New York : McGraw-Hill, c2003.
Art & Architecture Library (Bowes) » Reference » N6505 .C7 2003
Comprehensive overview of American art from the Colonial period to the present. Presents works of art in their contextual context. Extensive (18 pp.) bibliography.
London : Thames & Hudson, 2012.
Art & Architecture Library (Bowes) » Stacks » N5630 .N44 2012
Comprehensive survey arranged chronologically. Integrates archaeological evidence into the broader historical, social, and cultural context. Several chapters comprise case studies of particular sites such as Olympia and Delphi. Chapters begin with a chronological overview and conclude with a summary of basic points.
London : Thames & Hudson, c2004.
SAL3 (off-campus storage) » Stacks » N6490 .A7189 2004
Four eminent art historians, Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss,Yves-Alain Bois and Benjamin Buchloh present more than 120 short essays, each focusing on a key moment in the history of 20th and 21st century art. Essays are cross-referenced and reflect a variety of art historical methodologies for understanding modern and contemporary art. Essays include short listings of further readings. Glossary, general bibliography and a selected list of websites provide information for further research.
5th ed., rev. and expanded. Berkeley : University of California Press, c2008.
Art & Architecture Library (Bowes) » Stacks » N7340 .S92 2008
Renowned survey of of Chinese art from the Paleolithic to the present (2008). Revised edition continues chronological survey by dynasty with historical context.
Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2000.
Art & Architecture Library (Bowes) » Stacks » N6250 .C656 2000
Part of the Oxford History of Art series, the art of Constantinople between 330 and 1453, both religious and secular, is the focus of this work. Cormack examines the stages of Byzantine art through changes in society and the historical context. Includes timeline and suggestions for further reading including primary sources.
The only comprehensive survey of African art written in an art historical approach to include coverage of contemporary art and artists, including the African diaspora. Includes Egyptian art and religious art of Islamic and Christian traditions. This second edition features five short essays  on cross-cultural topics such as tourist arts, dating methods, and the illicit trade in archaeological artifacts. Extensive annotated bibliography.
5th ed. New York : Prentice Hall : H.N. Abrams, 1994.
Art & Architecture Library (Bowes) » On reserve: Ask at circulation desk » N7336 .L43 1994 F
Comprehensive survey of all Far Eastern Art, with coverage of China, Japan, Southeast Asia and India. Arranged chronologically up to 1860. Fifth edition reflects newer scholarship throughout the text. Comparative time chart for Far Eastern Art includes indication of cultural continuities across political and geographical boundaries.
7th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ : Prentice Hall, c2011.
Art & Architecture Library (Bowes) » On reserve: Ask at circulation desk » N6915 .H37 2011 F
Broad survey of art and architecture in Italy between ca. 1250 and 1600. Original edition by Frederick Hartt, a Monuments Man, is updated with current scholarship by David G. Wilkens, while retaining the original foci on individual works and artists. New edition includes discussion of women artists.
Englewood Cliffs, N.J. : Prentice-Hall ; New York : H.N. Abrams, c1989.
Green Library » Bender Room » N5975 .S58 1989B F
Comprehensive survey of the ecclesiastical arts - architecture, sculpture, manuscript illumination, and sumptuary arts - in Italy, Byzantium, Germany, and France from the 4th to the 14th centuries, including Early Christian, Byzantine, Pre-Romanesque Hiberno-Saxon, Carolingian, Ottonian, Romanesque, and Gothic art set within their historical contexts. Extensive notes with a select bibliography and timetables of medieval history and art.
[2nd ed.] Upper Saddle River, NJ : Prentice Hall, c2005.
Art & Architecture Library (Bowes) » On reserve: Ask at circulation desk » N6370 .S6 2005 F
Survey of Northern Renaissance Art, arranged chronologically and geographically by artistic centers and cities, in addition to chapters on the following individual artists: Jan van Eyck, Robert Campin, Rogier van der Weyden, Albrecht Durer, Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Extensive chapter notes reflect new scholarship.
5th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J. : Pearson Prentice Hall, c2009.
Green Library » Stacks » N5760 .R36 2009
Chronological survey geared toward the reader without any prior knowledge of the Classical world. Provides the historical, religious, political and linguistic background necessary to the understanding of Roman art.
20th ed. / Oxford ; Boston : Architectural Press, 1996.
Art & Architecture Library (Bowes) » Reference » NA200 .F63 1996
20th edition contains 200 additional pages. 35% of the text is new. Features expanded coverage of areas outside of Europe and includes works of the 20th century up to 1996. New chapters on the Middle East, Southeast Asia, India, Russia and Eastern Europe. Expanded bibliography covers all periods of world architecture.

Writing about art

Annotations provided by Dr. Gabrielle Moyer, Art & Art History Dept. Writing Specialist.

New York : Oxford University Press, 2004.
Art & Architecture Library (Bowes) » Reference » N7425 .A646 2004
Less a how-to guide for the writer than a pocket size philosophy of art history. Useful for students who want to better understand the field: its history, its questions, its objects, its writers. The book raises and addresses the following questions: What is Art History, Who were its foundational writers and what did they say, How is art displayed and why does this matter, What have philosophers said about art, How does a work produce meaning. In the process, the book exposes and seeks to remedy art history as 'western art as seen through the male gaze' (i.e. a diverse selection of images).
2nd ed. Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 2003.
Art & Architecture Library (Bowes) » Reference » N34 .C75 2003
31 mini-essays on key terms for writing about art. Each essay situates the term in the field, drawing on critical research and debate and, most importantly: explains how to use the term as a framework for analyzing a work of art. Each essay ends with an extensive, excellent bibliography. Valuable not only for developing and rethinking your approach to a work but also for researching. Some essays you'll find inside: Style, Modernism, Ugliness, Simulacrum, Visual Culture.
2nd ed. London : Laurence King Pub., 2010.
Art & Architecture Library (Bowes) » Stacks » N7480 .D325 2010
This guide is more advanced than Sayre's in that it provides a larger conceptual vocabulary to write about art--explaining how to do not only formal analysis (color, line, space, etc) but also contextual anaylsis (how to cosnider the role of museums, culture). Like Sayre, D'Alleva provides a step by step guide to beginning, researching (and finishing!) an art history essay but also a unique chapter on how to do well on art history exams and a chapter on the history of art history itself. The excerpts of art historical writing included in each chapter are particularly instructive.
9th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J. : Pearson/Prentice Hall, c2008.
Art & Architecture Library (Bowes) » Reference » N7476 .B37 2008
Often the assigned guide for AAH courses at Stanford, this all-inclusive book explains just about everything for the beginning writer in Art History: from what it means to interpret a work of art to how to include an image in an essay, how to avoid eurocentric language and how to pursue research on the web. It also defines and models theoretical approaches to bring to a work of art and explains how to write other genres in the field (exhibition catalog entry, review of an exhibition..). Barnet's inclusion of student writing throughout the guide are particularly helpful for illustrating points. While a bit tough to read because there's so much on each page, this books does seem to have it all.
6th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J. : Pearson Prentice Hall, c2009.
Art & Architecture Library (Bowes) » Reference » N7476 .S29 2009
Provides students with both basic and advanced terms for writing about art as well as a step by step guide for approaching and describing works of art. A key chapter is: 'What To Look for and How to Describe What You See.' A great introduction to writing about art if this is your very first time stepping into the field.

Chicago and MLA style guides

Many instructors require the Chicago Manual of Style for your citations, specifically the bibliography style, commonly used in the humanities. The clearest explanation of the Chicago bibliography style is Kate Turabian's A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations.

1. Finding citation style references in SearchWorks: Once you have retrieved a search result and are examining individual records in SearchWorks (click on the title within a results listing to get to that record), note that there is a "Cite this" link above the title. Click on the link to see the proper Chicago or MLA bibliography style for that title. Similarly, if you use the "Select" box to save records, when you click on the "Selected Items" link to see the titles you've marked, a "Cite items" link appears above your saved items and shows the proper citation style for the works you've saved.

2. Finding citation style references in databases: Both the EBSCO Host (Art Full Text, Art Retrospective, AnthropologyPlus) and ProQuest (Artbibliographies Modern, International Bibliography of Art) interfaces have similar "Cite" links.

3. Additional examples of how to cite art literature using Chicago:  The Duke University Art Library has created a guide, Style Examples in Every Format for Art History on how to cite various types of art literature using the Chicago style, giving the citations in both bibliography and footnote form.

4. Purdue University's guide, Purdue OWL: MLA Style, provides examples for both the bibiography and footnote form, as well as a more general introduction to MLA style.

Researching a work of art

While you might assume that most works of art have been extensively researched and published, in fact the opposite is true. Famous works, such as Edward Hopper's Nighthawks (1942; Art Institute of Chicago), Picasso's Guernica (1937; Museo Reina Sofia), or Ansel Adams's "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico" (1941) are well documented in the literature of art history. But lesser known works are often not published at all, thus requiring you to engage in original research--not a simple task. The following tips will help you find pull all of the above-mentioned literature types together in order to research a work of art.

  • Generally speaking, books are not written on works of art, but on artists. In SearchWorks, search on your artist's name, not the work of art. Within the book, look for references on works similar to the one you are writing on, from the same time period, with similar subject matter, and so on. Using the information you've found on these related works, begin writing your own narrative about the work you are focusing on. If your artist is famous and you retrieve too many results, you may also want to limit your search results to titles in English using the Language facet in the left column in the SearchWorks display.
  • When looking for books in SearchWorks, pay special attention if the book is an exhibition catalog, which is the publication that accompanies a museum or art gallery exhibition of the artist's work. You especially want to look for large museum exhibition catalogs which cover an artist's entire career (aka, a "retrospective" exhibition catalog), or which focus on the specific period your art work is from. Look in the SearchWorks record for specific information on the book. "Retrospective" is sometimes used in the subtitle of the catalog, which may be 200+ or 300+ pages.
  • If there are no books on your artist, look for books on the artistic school your artist is associated with, or your artist's time period. To discover this information, go to Oxford Art Online, an excellent art encyclopedia. Search on your artist's name, and based on the contextual information you find on your artist, go back to SearchWorks and try another round of searches.
  • Generally speaking, articles or essays are more likely to be written about specific works, or specific periods. Use the "Art databases" listing below to search for journal articles and essays on your artist. You might want to search on your artist's name and a keyword from the title of the work. If that yields no results, just search on the artist's name. As in SearchWorks, you can limit your search results to writings in English.
  • If you find yourself discovering too much in your searches (hundreds and hundreds of results), focus your search by adding another search keyword. If you are finding too few (none???), you may have entered too many search terms. Also, try variations on your search terms -- tulips, flowers, blooms, etc.
  • If you continue to have difficulty with your research, please come see one of the Art librarians shown at the right. Just walk into the Art & Architecture Library (preferably Monday-Friday, 9-5) and ask for assistance.

Art databases