An academic discipline which, as its name implies, is concerned with the historical study of art in all its manifestations throughout the ages to the present day. Its origins can be traced back to the 1st century ad in the writings of Pliny the Elder who, in his Natural History, gave an account of the evolution of Greek sculpture and painting. In the Renaissance the Italian artist Giorgio Vasari, in his celebrated Lives of the Artists 1550, chronicled the rise to pre-eminence of Italian artists. His essentially biographical approach was followed by a number of writers in Italy and northern Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. Art history really took root in western thought and culture in the 19th century, particularly in the German-speaking countries where chairs of art history were established at various universities. Many of the major public museums and galleries were also established around this time. A further intellectual impetus came about in the 1930s, its unfortunate cause being the enforced diaspora of many German and Central European Jewish intellectuals under the persecution of the Nazi regime. Among the many unintentional beneficiaries of this were the Universities of London (with its specialized art-historical institutes) and Princeton. At the heart of the modern conception of art history lies an apparent contradiction between object-based research and a desire to endow the subject with every conceivable degree of intellectual respectability and nuance. The latter has led, particularly since the Second World War, to the ever more frenzied incorporation of aspects of social history, Marxism, structuralism, feminism, semiotics, etc., and to the adoption, in the worst cases, of an almost impenetrable jargon which serves to obfuscate rather than clarify understanding and appreciation of the visual arts.
Subjects: Art — Regional and National History.