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Art history: beginning research

Last Updated: 6-Nov-2014

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. It includes lists of survey texts (which might be used in an Art 101 course or equivalent), basic texts treating specific topics within art history (Modern art, Asian art, etc.), and writing guides. It also includes an introduction to the various literature types: exhibition catalogs, catalogues raisonné, collection catalogs, monographs, artists' books, ephemera. The last section of this guide provides tips for researching a work of art including a list of art databases.

Subject Librarians

Head, Art & Architecture Library
(650) 725-1038
Assistant Art Librarian
(650) 725-1037
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Reference Librarian/VRC Cataloger
(650) 725-9274
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Basic 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

14th ed. Australia ; United States : Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, c2013.
Art & Architecture Library » Reference (non-circulating) » N5300 .G25 2013 F
13th ed. Boston, MA : Wadsworth/Cengage Learning, c2010.
Art & Architecture Library » Stacks » N5300 .G252 2010B F
13th ed. Boston, MA : Wadsworth/Cengage Learning, c2010.
Art & Architecture Library » Stacks » N5300 .G252 2010 F
8th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ : Prentice Hall, c2011.
Art & Architecture Library » Request at circulation desk » N5300 .J29 2011
4th ed. Boston : Prentice Hall, c2011.
Art & Architecture Library » Stacks » N5300 .S923 2011

Subject-specific surveys

New York : McGraw-Hill, c2003.
Art & Architecture Library » Reference (non-circulating) » N6505 .C7 2003
London : Thames & Hudson, 2012.
Art & Architecture Library » Stacks » N5630 .N44 2012
London : Thames & Hudson, c2004.
SAL3 (off-campus storage) » Stacks » N6490 .A7189 2004
5th ed., rev. and expanded. Berkeley : University of California Press, c2008.
Art & Architecture Library » Stacks » N7340 .S92 2008
Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2000.
Art & Architecture Library » Stacks » N6250 .C656 2000
5th ed. New York : Prentice Hall : H.N. Abrams, 1994.
Art & Architecture Library » Reference (non-circulating) » N7336 .L43 1994 F
7th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ : Prentice Hall, c2011.
Art & Architecture Library » Reference (non-circulating) » N6915 .H37 2011 F
Englewood Cliffs, N.J. : Prentice-Hall ; New York : H.N. Abrams, c1989.
Green Library » Bender Room (non-circulating) » N5975 .S58 1989B F
[2nd ed.] Upper Saddle River, NJ : Prentice Hall, c2005.
Art & Architecture Library » Reference (non-circulating) » N6370 .S6 2005 F
5th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J. : Pearson Prentice Hall, c2009.
Green Library » Stacks » N5760 .R36 2009
20th ed. / Oxford ; Boston : Architectural Press, 1996.
Art & Architecture Library » Reference (non-circulating) » NA200 .F63 1996

Guides to art writing and criticism

New York : Oxford University Press, 2004.
Art & Architecture Library » Request at circulation desk » N7425 .A646 2004
2nd ed. Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 2003.
Art & Architecture Library » Request at circulation desk » N34 .C75 2003
Upper Saddle River, NJ : Prentice Hall, c2003.
Art & Architecture Library » Stacks » N5303 .W97 2003
3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ : Pearson Prentice Hall, c2004.
Art & Architecture Library » Stacks » N380 .R438 2004
6th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J. : Pearson Prentice Hall, c2009.
Art & Architecture Library » Request at circulation desk » N7476 .S29 2009

Tips for 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.

Suggested art databases