Art History 101 . . . Without the Exams: Looking Closely at Objects from the History of Art

Art History 101 . . . Without the Exams: Looking Closely at Objects from the History of Art

by Annie Montgomery Labatt


Available for Pre-Order. This item will be available on February 16, 2021


Have you ever found art museums intimidating and art history a baffling mix of periods, names, and styles? Annie Labatt’s Art History 101 without the Exams: Looking Closely at Objects from the History of Art aims to remove this inaccessibility issue in the art world by breaking the history of art down into twenty accessible lessons, each built around a single, canonical piece considered a masterpiece from its era.

Beginning with prehistoric cave drawings and Greek statues; continuing through the Gothic, Byzantine, Baroque, and the Renaissance movements; and concluding with the Impressionist work of Monet and Picasso, Labatt asks us to consider each work and think about the artist who created it and what they wanted us to see. She frames our understanding of the historical and social context of the piece as well as the background of the artist and, in many cases, the patron who commissioned it.

Each period and its discussion stands alone and lends itself to be read individually and in no particular order. From the tiniest of details to the broadest cultural implications and meanings, Art History 101 helps us see why these works of art are considered masterpieces. In completing the full course, one sees how each piece contributes to a larger portrait—the full narrative of art history through the ages.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781595348784
Publisher: Trinity University Press
Publication date: 02/16/2021
Pages: 520
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 7.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Annie Montgomery Labatt is Associate Professor of Visual Studies and Director of Galleries and Museums at Sweet Briar College in Virginia. She graduated with High Honors from Barnard College of Columbia University in 2002, and received her PhD from Yale University in 2011. While a graduate student, she won a two-year Rome Prize at the American Academy of Rome, and was also a fellow at Harvard University’s Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection. She has worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on two major exhibitions, once as a research assistant and once as a Chester Dale Fellow. Laboratory of Images: Emerging Iconographies in 8th- and 9th- Century Rome, her study of the development of Christian imageries, is forthcoming.

Read an Excerpt

Italian Baroque Art | Caravaggio, The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599-1600) A door opens. A blast of light enters, raking dramatically along the back wall of a seedy room. The appearance is wholly unanticipated—both the light and the unknown visitors, one of whom has a delicate, attenuated, golden halo. Some look, some don’t. The two men at the farthest end of the table huddle over their silver coins, focusing on the count, ignoring the other end of the room. The two men to the right end of the table seem perplexed. And in the middle of the melee, this ship of fools, a man, Matthew, points, stupefied, “What, who, me?” In that instant his life is changed. He has been called. Christ’s gesture affects Matthew, touching without touch, calling without a sound, barely opening his mouth. Nor does Christ linger. His feet are much masked by his companion Peter’s leg and the dark shadows that wait to regain their hold over the room. But if we look closely it appears that he has already turned to leave, feet firmly planted towards the direction of the door. The moment happens quickly, just as it does in the biblical account. Matthew 9:9 reads: “As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew, sitting in the tax collector’s booth. ‘Follow me,’ he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.” Christ’s stance exudes the solidity, power, and confidence in the biblical passage. His pose is quite a contrast to those angular, jumpy, hosed legs at the left. Contrasts are key, and Caravaggio brings those dichotomies to the fore through his use of contrasting lights and darks. The technique is called tenebrism, derived from the word tenebroso, meaning murky in Italian. It is essentially a wildly heightened version of chiaroscuro—the juxtaposition of light and dark that was so beloved by the Quattrocento painters like Leonardo da Vinci. In Caravaggio’s hand, the subtlety of the chiaroscuro gets pushed to the furthest extremes of the spectrum, into the realm of impenetrable, violent darks and surprisingly blinding lights. But
don’t expect that light to come with angels or putti or beautiful gleaming virgins. Rather than pinks, gold, and ultramarine blue we have muted maroons, mustardy yellows, muddy browns, and of course pitch black. Rather than a sense of calm, Caravaggio’s paintings make you feel uneasy, shocked, passionate, and inspired. These are the feelings that imbue and charge the Contarelli Chapel, tucked away in a corner of San Luigi dei Francesi, a Roman church situated near the Piazza Navona. The series includes The Calling of Saint Matthew, The Inspiration of Saint Mathew, and finally the frenzied Martyrdom. All were in place by 1602, although The Calling was finished by 1600. These paintings consume the walls of the chapel and reach out into your space, grabbing your attention much like Christ’s gesture grabs Matthew.

Table of Contents

1. Altamira (13,000 BCE)—Prehistoric Art
2. Assurnasirpal II Killing the Lions (883-859 BCE)—Assyrian Art
3. The Euphronios Krater (c. 515 BCE)—Greek Art
4. Nike of Samothrace (Second century BCE)—Greek Art
5. Villa at Boscotrecase (Last decade of first century BCE)—Roman Art
6. San Vitale, Ravenna (c. 547)—Early Byzantine Art
7. Sant Climent de Taüll (1123)—Romanesque Art
8. Incense Burner of Amir Saif al-Dunya wa’l-Din ibn Muhammad al-Mawardi (1181-82)—Islamic Art
9. Sainte-Chapelle (1239-1248)—Gothic Art
10. The Chora Church (1316-1321) —Late Byzantine Art
11. Jan van Eyck, The Annunciation (1434-1436)—Northern Renaissance Art
12. Botticelli, The Birth of Venus (1483-1485)—Italian Renaissance Art
13. Bruegel the Elder, The Harvesters (1565)—Netherlandish Art
14. Caravaggio, The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599-1600)—Italian Baroque Art
15. Rembrandt, The Night Watch (1642)—Dutch Baroque Art
16. Velázquez, Las Hilanderas (1655-60)—Spanish Baroque Art
17. Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa (1818-1819)—Romantic Art
18. Monet, Impression Sunrise (1872)—Impressionism
19. Sargent, El Jaleo (1882)—American Art
20. Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907)—Modern Art



Going to a museum, standing in front of the Birth of Venus in the Uffizi or the Nike of Samothrace in the Louvre, is an exhilarating experience. But it can also be confusing and frustrating. Perhaps we have been told that this is an important work of art, one that we should know and admire. But we may not be sure exactly why. It is in the canon and therefore “essential”—but that tautological logic really does not help. What is the piece about? How did the original owner look at this piece? Where was it originally placed? Why is it in this museum now? The flurry of other visitors and the desire to see as many pieces as possible keep us from being able to spend time with the object, to observe the details of the work of art, and to let those questions simmer, let alone find answers. Our more probing questions are often left for a later time, if we can find time.
Being an art historian means taking time to think about what to say about works of art. In graduate school we are surrounded by people who think about art history all day long; as teachers, we have to justify to our students why they are not wasting their time by taking our courses. But art history is important outside of the academy too. When I have answered the question “What do you do?” with “I am an art historian,” I have met responses of various forms of surprise and curiosity. Some people would reminisce about loving their university art history classes, about missing that subject and that kind of discourse. Others wished they had taken classes in art history and were disappointed that they would never have the chance to do so. Those conversations inspired me to want to take art history outside the university walls, to an audience made up of individuals that were curious to know more about the pieces they might travel to see or even had seen with some of those lingering questions remaining.
This was the idea behind “Art History 101…Without the Exams.” Between September 2013 and December 2015, I offered three series of monthly lectures at the San Antonio Museum of Art, a total of twenty. The talks took place on Friday nights, which was important because the experience was supposed to show that scholarly learning is rewarding, enriching, and, most importantly, fun. The grocery chain H-E-B provided food that reflected the art—freshly-pulled mozzarella for Botticelli, a whole (and quickly devoured) roasted pig for Velazquez, a mock-up peacock pie (really chicken) for Rembrandt. The museum provided wine. All in all, the experience met the expectation that the lecture series would be like “Happy Hour meets book club.”
Before the series started I was advised to keep the content simple, at a low and easy level. That is something that I would not do. I wanted the lectures to be scholarly, but with a sprinkle of humor and pop culture. I believe we naturally crave information and challenges. We only consume the “low” it because it is easy to access. The “low” surrounds us at every turn. We need no more of it. The success of the series spoke volumes. There were lines to get into the auditorium, which was full long before the lectures started. The museum added outside seating in the foyer with a monitor to show the images. Often that outside seating would also be full.
The work of art history begins with the art of seeing. The great Joseph Conrad once wrote in a famous preface, “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of written word, to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see. That and no more, and it is everything.” Conrad’s words could stand as the goal of art, and of talking about art. In fact, visual art begins by making us see literally. We begin with the literal eye, then move to the kind of mind’s eye appealed to by the novelist, making inferences, interpreting patterns, perhaps deducing narrative. Then, if we keep going, we can begin to ask questions about context, patrons, even museology.
Actually, Conrad goes on to reach much further, saying “If I succeed, you shall find there according to your deserts, and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.” I too believe that it is by looking carefully, by developing our skills of perception and observation, that we have a better chance of experiencing the sensations Conrad mentions, a fuller and richer gamut of human emotions and humanity. Surely that qualifies as what Conrad calls “a glimpse of truth.”
This is the sequence I have tried to build into my method. In each lecture I focused intensively on one work of art. I would start with a consideration of what exactly we could see, what exactly the artist was trying to make us see. Then I worked outwards, discussing the context of the work of art. I discussed inspirations and influences related to that piece, while considering the social and historical contexts to which it belonged—Who were these artists, patrons, viewers? What were they trying to say? What moved them? This was the way that I had first learned how to practice art history, when I was a college student taking the Art Humanities classes, part of the Core Curriculum at Columbia University. The concept behind “Art Hum,” as it is called, is to provide a sense of the entire art historical canon in just one semester. Each lecture focuses on one masterpiece that epitomizes the period. Similarly, for the Art History 101 series, I chose pieces that that are part of the canon, grand masterpieces. The pieces I chose were works that I myself wanted to know better, works of art that I longed to understand in a deeper way. They were works of art that appear in the art history textbook that I use in my own classroom. I hoped, in these lectures, to provide a sense of the shape of Art History, of its grand narrative over time. I wanted the flow from one period to the next to expose connections and ties, but without any sense that later is better. Each moment, each monument, has a specific and remarkable story to tell, one that might have informed later artists, consciously or not.
I approached these focal pieces like jewel-boxes, as though I was holding a magnifying lens, looking at often miniscule details. I like to use a zooming presenter, Prezi, in order to home in on special details without losing any resolution in the image. I also utilized the incredible high-resolution imagery provided by the Google Cultural Institute. This tool allowed us to interact with the image and to see aspects that are not easily invisible to the naked eye. For instance, I had never before noticed the dome-shaped building through the window or the incredible details on floor tiles in the Van Eyck Annunciation. Even in the clearest printing of the image those details would have been hard to find. But these elements are absolutely part of the artist’s message.
In addition to pulling up the Google Cultural Institute as I spoke, I also drew upon other teaching tools. The wonderful game provided by PBS showing the effects of pointed versus rounded arches helps explain the physics of those forms. I also played clips of videos. The gasps were audible when I showed the height of the jumps of a caracal—a feat that has to be seen to be believed. I also showed a video that had been produced by the Riksjmuseum to publicize its reopening. In it, a group of actors recreate The Night Watch in the middle of a shopping mall. It had the audience in stiches. The links for these and other resources appear in the footnotes of the text.
These are monuments and moments that can inform us, that can enliven and invigorate that which we see on a daily basis—in our travels, in our readings, in our jaunts about whatever town we live in. After my first college course in art history everything around me, my surroundings, started to look different. I came home to San Antonio during the winter break and all of the places that I had known growing up had undergone a complete change. There were columns on houses that were just like the Roman columns I had been studying in class. There were pediments and dentils and corbels from Greek architecture. The Alamo was like the Arch of Constantine; it had Solomonic columns, just like at St. Peter’s Basilica. Everything was more meaningful, richer. My present could reach into a deep sense of the past. These kinds of connections also shaped the lectures at SAMA.
I intentionally have left in place those elements of the lectures in which I made reference to current echoes of the masterpieces of art—a reproduction of the Nike of Samothrace in a former sculpture garden, a modern mosaic on the façade of a theater, WPA frescoes in lost post offices, the baroque costumes of a prominent marching men’s organization like the one in The Night Watch. If looking at art helps us to learn to see, one of the things we should see is the presence of art in the communities we live in. These references are not meant to be narrowly provincial, but to assure that the discussion of art masterpieces has a “local habitation,”—in this case, San Antonio, Texas. Our challenge is to continue to seek these kinds of resonances and references wherever we visit, to connect our deep, historical past with our deepening sense of the present.

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