Art history is the study of objects of art in their historical development and stylistic contexts, i.e. genre, design, format, and style. This includes the “major” arts of painting, sculpture, and architecture as well as the “minor” arts of ceramics, furniture, and other decorative objects.
As a term, art history (its product being history of art) encompasses several methods of studying the visual arts; in common usage referring to works of art and architecture. Aspects of the discipline overlap. As the art historian Ernst Gombrich once observed, “the field of art history [is] much like Caesar‘s Gaul, divided in three parts inhabited by three different, though not necessarily hostile tribes: (i) the connoisseurs, (ii) the critics, and (iii) the academic art historians”.
As a discipline, art history is distinguished from art criticism, which is concerned with establishing a relative artistic value upon individual works with respect to others of comparable style, or sanctioning an entire style or movement; and art theoryor “philosophy of art“, which is concerned with the fundamental nature of art. One branch of this area of study is aesthetics, which includes investigating the enigma of the sublime and determining the essence of beauty. Technically, art history is not these things, because the art historian uses historical method to answer the questions: How did the artist come to create the work?, Who were the patrons?, Who were his or her teachers?, Who was the audience?, Who were his or her disciples?, What historical forces shaped the artist’s oeuvre, and How did he or she and the creation, in turn, affect the course of artistic, political, and social events? It is, however, questionable whether many questions of this kind can be answered satisfactorily without also considering basic questions about the nature of art. Unfortunately the current disciplinary gap between art history and the philosophy of art (aesthetics) often hinders this inquiry.
Art history is not only a biographical endeavor. Art historians often root their studies in the scrutiny of individual objects. They thus attempt to answer in historically specific ways, questions such as: What are key features of this style?, What meaning did this object convey?, How does it function visually?, Did the artist meet their goals well?, What symbols are involved?, and Does it function discursively?
The historical backbone of the discipline is a celebratory chronology of beautiful creations commissioned by public or religious bodies or wealthy individuals in western Europe. Such a “canon” remains prominent, as indicated by the selection of objects present in art history textbooks. Nonetheless, since the 20th century there has been an effort to re-define the discipline to be more inclusive of non-Western art, art made by women, and vernacular creativity.