Subjects for discussion

“Art is the Conscience of a Nation”, or why the study of the history of art is important.

In 2018 history of art was removed as an ‘A’-level option in the English education syllabus, so I was delighted to learn that free online courses will be available on YouTube.  These have been created by a former curator of the Courtauld Institute (the number one institute for art history in the world) and will feature items in our UK national collection. They will also be available for free through the websites of the museums holding the featured items.  No previous knowledge is necessary, just curiosity and an interest.

This announcement gave me food for thought and caused me to reflect that by removing this study option, our children had been denied a wonderful opportunity to begin to explore the origins of civilisation, but if sufficiently curious would be able to do so for free.

Some might say I am biased since my first degree is in the history of art, architecture and design, but if the history of art is not studied and research continued, we will lose so much knowledge. Art is not just the production of pretty pictures and attractive sculptures. The study of the history of art is not only the study of the work of these artists, but also of art movements; of the society, the politics and the religious changes that affected the men and women  who created the various artistic works; and what influenced them – starting with the most prolific of artists, A.N.ON, whose first work was a totemic statue of a Lion Man (31cms high) carved out of bone some 40,000 years ago.

In the first lecture I attended as an under-graduate we were told to study everything about the period we were studying. A well informed art historian will have read the literature, studied the politics, the social and religious history. The latter is very important in the case of medieval and Renaissance artists. To have some understanding of their subject matter it means reading the same works a Renaissance artist might have studied, such as those by Livy, Cicero, Ovid, Homer, Plato, Socrates – and many others. Clearly those looking at modern art would find this area of study much easier than those studying the art of earlier centuries, since there is much written about modern art and all these sources are printed. For those interested in satisfying their curiosity by studying medieval or Renaissance art at an even higher level than a Bachelor’s degree, it might be advisable to consider taking a post-graduate history degree. At a minimum, it would  benefit a researcher to learn the disciplines of palaeography and manuscript. This will enable a student to gain an understanding of the medieval and early modern world through their study of original documents. Gaining a working knowledge of latin, Greek, Norman French, High German, Spanish and Italian is also a good idea. You do not need to be fluent, and your ability will, of course, improve the more you practice.

The first book on art history, Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors & Architects, was written in the sixteenth century (in Italian) by Giorgio Vasari.[i] For serious students it is one of those books that you should have on your bookshelf. The other is John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. These two books open a student’s eyes like no other.

The twenty first century is the most image laden society since Man first stood on two legs. On our phones, computers, various social media accounts, television, magazines – both electronic and paper, we are bombarded with people’s selfies, photographs of your best friend’s dog/child/meal, events with the girls/boys etc., etc. Everyone is a photographer. For those in the creative fields, architects, artists, sculptors, film directors, fashion designers, set designers, graphic designers, designers of computer games, even mathemeticians and scientists are all inspired or involved in art in some way or another.

You may raise your eyebrows in surprise at the thought of the last two disciplines, but where would architects, artists and sculptors be without mathematics? The ancient Greek sculptor Polykleitos (450-420 BC) took a mathematical approach as a guide to sculpting what was considered to be the ultimately perfect body – the male nude.

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The concept of the ‘perfect’ body is recorded in his Canon where he demonstrates mathematically how to calculate the perfect proportions of the nude.  Using a measurement of the distal phalanx of the little finger and multiplying this by the √2, gives the sculptor the length of the intermediate phalanges. In turn this is multiplied by the √2 to provide the length of the proximal phalanges. In total this will give you the length of the little finger.  By using the same process of multiplying the length of the little finger by the √2, Polykleitos defined the length of the palm from the base of the little finger to the ulna.  This process is repeated until the sculptor has created the perfectly proportioned nude.[ii]  

An example is this statue (right): Doryphoros. after Polykleitos the Elder. Roman copy circa 1st century AD. Naples National Archaeological Museum

There are other examples of mathematical proportion used to create paintings and sculptures such as the golden ratio. Hence the mathematician is essential to the creation of art, architecture and sculpture.

The scientist employs modern technoloy allowing us to analyse and penetrate the surface of paintings. Pigment analysis is vital in authenticating original paintings. Up until recently this required a small amount of paint being taken. In the case of illuminated manuscripts this was very detrimental to the image, whereas large paintings could have paint removed from where it would not be seen i.e from the edge of the painting under the frame.  Now it is possible to subject a painted surface to Raman spectoscropy, which is completely non-invasive. This method uses laser and identifies inorganic heritage pigments.[iii] For the identification of pigments used in illuminated manuscripts this has meant scientists have been able to build up a database that is increasing our knowledge of which workshop preferred what pigments.

To look beneath the surface of an image, the technicians in white coats use X-ray and infra-red reflectography. These modern methods reveal any pentimenti[iv], the absence of which may suggest the painting is a copy. The two volumes of papers presented at the Cambridge (UK) conference Manuscripts in the Making : Art & Science(8-10 December 2016) might be expensive, but for a serious researcher they are well worth the investment.  This conference, and the exhbition at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Colour The Art & Science for Illuminated Manuscripts, show-cased the results of the interdisciplinary work being done by the international network of researchers involved in the MINIARE project at Cambridge University.

When it comes to history, art as an evidence source is often neglected. Taking Impressionist paintings as an example, these are important documents as well as being beautiful works of art. The French Impressionists broke away from the artistic requirements imposed by the doyens of the Académie des Beaux Arts who deemed that only historical or religious narrative subjects were ‘proper art’. Even though, technically speaking, it was Courbet’s 1849 painting, Burial at Ornans, that broke this restrictive mould, the Impressionists are important because their paintings of everyday 19thcentury life documents the industrial and social revolution in France. In the case of Camille Pissaro and Monet, their paintings also record scenes of what is now south London.  In the 1870s these settlements were still separated by green spaces .

Other images document the spread and importance of the railways and factories. Take a look into the background of The Bathers at Asnières c1884 

The Bathers at Asnières c1884.  Georges Seurat (1859-1891).                                                     Copyright of National Gallery, London

by the post-impressionist painter, Georges Seurat. From the art historical perspective, this painting documents Seurat’s development of his pointillist style into a much larger scale, on a par with those historical and religious narrative paintings so beloved by the Academics. Looking deeper into this painting we see a train crossing the river Seine and behind it we see the roofs and chimneys of an industrial landscape. The foregound is dominated by four young men relaxing on the riverbank and cooling themselves off in the water. A man wearing a bowler hat and a white coat takes his leisure lying on the grass and another man in similar dress can be seen sitting on the grass in the distance

Who are these men enjoying some time by the river? Are they factory workers? Are the men with the bowler hats their supervisors? What is being manufactured in those factories and is that train carrying the product to the wholesaler for distribution? In other words, we are provided with a snapshot into a new and vital ‘modern’ world, because for Seurat it was precisely that.

The spread of the railways meant those artists living in Paris wanting a less polluted air in which to paint.  They found this in rural Brittany and thanks to the railways, could be reached within only thirteen hours! In particular, Pont Aven was the place popular with artists. Not only was the air purer, but the light was clearer and the cost of living much cheaper than Paris.

Unfortunately, it took some time for the paintings of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists to become collectors’ items. There were some artists who defied this lack of popularity and made a fortune, but refused to be considered as part of the Impressionist’s group despite being very much involved in their discussions taking place in the bars and cafés frequented by these artists.Edouard Manet was one, yet it was he who set the scene with his controversial painting, Dejeuner sur l’Herbe – which was loathed by the Salon.  The writer, Charles Baudelaire, described modern Paris, and the world as he saw it.  Baudelaire was an interesting dissolute character – let’s just say he would be a psychoanalysist’s delight!  However, having said that, his work is worth reading.

Edgar Degas’ images of days at the races captures the atmosphere of the sport of kings and it is clear this was a world with which he was very familiar. After the Franco-Prussian war and financial crash of the 1870s, when the Degas family lost its fortune, Edgar had to paint in order to restore the family to the level of financial independence they had enjoyed before the 1873 banking crisis. He painted scantily clad female trapeze artists, of ballet dancers in rehearsal and on stage, all dressed in fluffy tutus and exposing their legs and arms. In these popular ballet scenes Degas captured on canvas what was, on the surface, acceptable, amused and entertained middle class Parisians. Degas came from the world of the wealthy ‘flaneur’. He knew what his fellow wealthy ‘flaneurs’ enjoyed watching.[vi] Perhaps these paintings of scantily clad women titillated, so these men were willing to pay well for these works.

Emile Zola’s highly critical novel, Nana, documents the short life of a young girl who is taken up by a rich flaneur, and how her life proceeds to its enevitable end. We are taken into the world of the ‘flaneur’. The novel opens in 1867, when we learn that an unknown talent, Nana, is to be the lead of a operetta. Middle cass Paris is agog with this debut of this unknown ‘star’. The manager of the theatre had spotted that she had ‘something’ and put her into the lead role. Because we are so used to highly sexually charged performances in the videos that are support our popular music, we should not be surprised by his recognition of her ‘charisma’. In the late 1860s an actress who had masses of sex appeal, even though she could not sing or dance, may well have been dismissed as a rubbish performer. Nana’s performance is rubbish, but thanks to the timely approbation of a young man who yells “Tres chic” at the crucial moment, the opinion of the audience is turned and from then on her career as a performer is ensured. By 1870 she is the live-in lover of a Russian prince (a typical flaneur) and has had a young son who sadly contracts smallpox. She nurses her son until his death and she too contracts the disease and dies.

Eduard Manet’s 1877 painting of Zola’s ‘Nana’, inspired by the novel, now hangs in the Kunsthalle, Hamburg.

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‘Nana‘ 1877. Edouard Manet (1832-1883)                                                                  Kunsthalle, Hamburg.

She stands dressed only in her undergarments and her rich companion is seen seated in the background.  Nana gazes out directly at us, the viewer, as if challenging us make some judgemental comment about her life choices.   Zola’s written description of her face at the end of her life was said to be an exposé of her true  character “What lay on the pillow was a charnel house, a heap of pus and blood, a shovelful of putrid flesh.Interestingly, there are echoes of a similar sort personality flaw in Wilde’s story The Portrait of Dorian Grey,published in the 1890s, but I digress.

This is not a novel criticising the sexual exploitation of vulnerable women. At the time it was seen as a critical story of how a cunning low born woman uses her looks to get what she wants out of rich men. If Nana had been published today, we would have a completely different interpretation and this book is a difficult read for someone who believes in gender equality. Degas’ paintings of dancers are snapshots of rehearsals and ballet lessons and the composition of these works suggests Degas used photographs as his guide and the composition of Japanese woodcuts as his inspiration.  What is essential for students of both art and social history is an understanding of 19th century social attitudes toward women and to keep these in mind when reading literature written before the feminist movement. Back then women were chattels with virtually no rights in law, therefore it is no wonder that many impoverished women took up the oldest profession in the world, taking advantage of any offer that would give them a better life.[vii]

Impressionism became an international style for portraying modern life. Australian and American artists embraced it, capturing the feel and adventure of these New World nations. Arthur Streeton (1867-1943) and Thomas Roberts (1856-1931) are not only great Australian artists, but their paintings of the outback and street scenes of the cities are important visual records of 19thcentury European settlement of Australia as it developed as a nation. Streeton painted the railway station at Redfern in Sydney.

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Railway Station at Redfern, 1893. Arthur Streeton (1867-1943).                                                     Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Again we appreciate how it is the railways that opened up areas of this vast continent. Note that the main traffic on the roads is the horse drawn carriage. Ironically, considering that Sydney is very sunny, this painting depicts a very wet scene.

Roberts and Streeton’s landscape paintings throb with heat, conveyed by the depth and juxtposition of colour. This could almost be a contemporary beach scene of the 21st century.

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Holiday Sketch at Coogee 1888. Tom Roberts (1856-1931).                                                                       Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Importantly, Roberts and Streeton are finally getting the recognition on this side of the world they so richly deserve.

George Bellows’ 1912 painting, Men of the Docks, could have been acquired by the National Gallery much earlier in the 20th century, but it was not until early in the 21st that the gallery directors decided that his work merited being hung on the walls of this bastion of Old World art.

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Men of the Docks. 1912. George Bellows (1882-19250.                                                                      National Gallery, London (not currently on view).

Bellows shows us men standing around on a snowy Brooklyn dockside. The canvas is full of contrasts, the sleek modern ocean liner and the skyline of the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan compare with the dray horses and anxious stevedores waiting in line. What are these men waiting for? Does the ice have anything to do with it? Day labourers relied on the daily arrival of ships and a river blocked with ice floes meant no ship would be able to dock. Have these men been turned away from unloading this ocean liner? We are the ones who have to think about what is going on, who is involved including those out of sight, and draw our own conclusions about early 20thcentury New York dock life.


All of this musing of how Impressionist paintings are important documents for an art historian has made me look at what information and courses are on the Internet for free. Of course there are numerous blogs like mine. Some are written by people who are recognised teachers and academics and are, like me, continuing to research their chosen subjects. Then there are those blogs written by those who lack the comprehensive knowledge of social history, literature, politics, religion and everything else that makes up a comprehensive understanding of a specific period, but blog away happily, giving us the benefit of their opinions. While attending a conference last autumn I had a discussion with a learned professor about how these ‘populist’ history websites do not help the teaching of history in schools. I have only taught adults, but it is obvious that much inaccurate and poorly researched history might end up being absorbed by our children because Internet research is central to compulsory education. The learned professor recognised those bloggers were entitled to their ill informed opinions. Perhaps we should admire their enthusiasm, but warn the curious to question whether these websites should be used for educational purposes.

It was the announcement of the new free online art history courses to be launched on YouTube that started me thinking about what else is on offer out there in cyber space for the curious individual hungry to satisfy their mental appetite?

Future Learning  offers free introductory courses in many subjects providing a gateway to further fee paying courses enabling you to study up to degree and post-graduate level. There are many more, but despite the plethora of quality free online courses, there are also the websites that charge. I looked specifically at those that purport to teach art history and medieval and early modern history being my personal areas of interest. With so many extremely interesting and excellent free courses, before signing up to one that is requesting payment perhaps it would be wise to consider a few points before parting with your well earned cash.

  • Do you recognise the names of those giving the courses; are they recognised academics?
  • Have you seen these people in any TV documentary imparting their knowledge and showing a passion for their subject?
  • If you sign up to one of these courses will you be asked to submit any course work, or take online exams in order to asses your progress?
  • Will you be given a certificate showing your level of proficiency?
  • Most importantly, is the website affliliated to an accredited educational institution?

Anyone can print off a fancy certificate, but if you are proposing to rely on that certificate to reflect your level of competence when applying for a place in a higher education college, or perhaps presenting it when applying for a job, find out whether that certificate or online organisation is recognised? Museums and galleries offer specialist courses might appear expensive, but they are either accredited educational institutions in their own right, or are affiliated to universities.

In some respects this also applies to subscription rates of societies and institutions. I had a National Art Pass for many years. Those holding the pass receive a very glossy quarterly magazine and a directory of all the museums and galleries in the UK that show the discounts available to holders in up to 200 museums and galleries in the UK.  Often this discount was up to 50% and in some places entrance is to pass holders. The cost is £67/annum and very quickly pays for itself through the savings made from the discounted entries.

Taking the wonderful Royal Academy (which celebrates its 250th anniversary this year) Academy offers a family membership for two adults and two family guests for £180 (roughly $244 in May 2018). You might think this pretty steep, but taking into consideration that the Academy’s premises are in Piccadilly, London and the annual subscription covers free, multiple entry to the exhibitions in both the Sackler Wing and the main exhibitions halls, various special members only events, plus special Friends facilities away from the public areas.

Other public galleries have free entry to their permanent exhibitions such as the Tate, the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria & Albert. Of course there are many others, but these are my particular favourites. All of these offer membership schemes giving unlimited, free entry to all (expensive) temporary exhibitions, previews of new exhibitions, access to Members’ Room with exclusive dining options, priority booking for all evening talks and specially curated Members-only events, as well as glossy magazines and regular Members’ Newsletters and emails.

All the magazines sent out by these institutions have articles written by people working in the industry and are recognised experts in their field. There are adverts for specialist holidays in the classified sections, which is a great way to learn and meet new like-minded people. The adverts do not necessarily carry the endorsement of the specific institution, but if the advertiser is prepared to pay the cost of having an ad in a glossy magazine, they are aiming at a specific audience and this target market expects a certain level of expertise from their guides, plus luxury accommodation.

In addition, these major institutions have wonderful bookshops and recently I was delighted to come across a biography written by a young author I know well. It gave me a delicious quiver of delight to find a book by someone whom I know worked incredibly hard on their book.

Considering the costs, it would be a good idea to look at what an institution membership fee pays for? First of all the buildings of the Royal Academy date from the 18th century, while the relatively modern buildings of the National Gallery & National Portrait Gallery are 19thcentury.  Tate Modern is a converted 20thcentury power station, while its big brother, Tate Britain, was founded by Sir Henry Tate in 1897 and that building carries the scars of the Blitz of World War. There is the considerable cost of maintaining these buildings, not to mention staff costs, educational bursaries, funding of research, and not forgetting commercial taxes – let alone any other tax. Most importantly the Tate museums, the V&A, the National Gallery & the National Portrait Gallery house our national collections. All art collections held in any museum or gallery require considerable amounts of money to conserve and after all of these costs, it is also necessary to purchase new works of art to continue to grow these collections.

If you cannot visit these permanent exhibitions in person, their objects and paintings are available to access online wherever you are in the world. In particular, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the JP Getty in Los Angeles have digitised some of the most exquisitely illuminated manuscripts, and for those doing personal research in this field the images are free to download.  In addition, the Met (New York) also has some of its publications free to download. This has saved me considerable money, time and effort in tracking down the physical out of print books or magazine articles.

Expanding my exploration to some of the subscription websites for online history magazines and societies, I wondered what would I be getting for my money and would the fees be less? Some are charging similar fees as the public galleries and museums. Obviously anything online does not have to purchase, restore and exhibit works of art, nor do they have the upkeep of large expensive buildings. The similarities will be staff costs, they may have to pay for office space and of course there are computer costs.  Some produce physical magazines in addition to their online editions, but you may pay a premium for this. But if they are charging similar subscription fees to the big galleries, are they value for money? Do they carry endorsements from other organisations? There are some excellent ones and I happily part with my ££ to read these.

Articles in online magazines may be written by unknown regular contributors struggling to make their name. Often they will write articles for free in order to get their work read.  The English National Union of Journalists has put together a guide for fees paid for articles per 1000 words. Even a small publication should be paying something in the region £150 per 1000 words, but this is not often the case. This is another cost that is common to the institutions and the online only sites.[viii] Clearly the more prestigious and/or specialist the writer, the more they would expect to be paid. Those people have spent years studying and it is unfair to expect them to be paid peanuts.

If a website is free to access, many famous authors provide articles for no fee. These websites often host online book tours and are a great way of publicising a new book.  The hosts of these sites are some of the most generous individuals, of both their time and  support, I have had the privilege to meet. Unfortunately, the downside of the Internet is that anyone can produce an online publication with a flashy front page. As a consumer I would consider all of the above before parting with any hard earned £s or $s.

The big galleries and museums around the world are always full of the curious as well as the learned, demonstrating just how fascinated we are about the art and artefacts that define mankind’s progression, but their upkeep costs money. We all have our favourite artefacts and paintings and every time we visit our favourite museum or gallery we continue to find something new or different.

The next time you are looking at any works of art, think of how the artist is inviting you into their world. The next time you watch a film, or a TV series, remember how the study of art history has inspired designers, film directors, interior designers, architects, game designers as well as those artists continuing to ply their talent. If you are unable to travel to galleries and museums then explore their collections online – for free. TV  programmes, such as the BBC’s Civilisations series, document our progress from our emergence as a species that first created art some 40,000 years ago to the present day. The final episode of this stunning documentary series highlights what Picasso so rightly pointed out, “Art is the conscience of a nation”, which is why the study of the history of art is an important subject for study.

If you are curious and want to learn more about art history, history, or any other subject, remember to explore the free online courses before signing up to what might give you nothing more than an expensive, but effectively worthless piece of paper masquerading as a certificate of proficiency.

Recommended Reading:

T J Clark: The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet & his Followers. Princeton University Press; 1999.

John Berger: The Ways of Seeing; Penguin Modern Classics. (the 1972 series is also on YouTube)

Charles Baudelaire; The Painter of Modern Life;  Penguin Classics; 2010. (This is a key essay for those interested in the art of the Impressionists).

Giorgio Vasari; Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors & Architects; translated by Julia Conway Bondanella & Peter Bondanella; revised edition Oxford University Press; 2014.

Links to the major galleries membership pages mentioned in this article. You can access the whole of their websites from these pages.

Other museums. (there are Guggenheim museums in New York, Bilbao & Venice)


[i]First published in 1550, Vasari’s Liveshas been translated into English and is availble through Amazon or you can access this translation free.

[ii]Stewart, Andrew (November 1978). “Polykleitos of Argos”, One Hundred Greek Sculptors: Their Careers & Extant Works. Journal of Hellenic Studies.  Vol 98 pp 122-131.


[iv]Pentiment is the term for the visual evidence of where a painter has changed his mind when sketching out the original image.

[v]En plein aire, the technical term for painting out of doors.

[vi]For those unfamiliar with the term of ‘flaneur’, the term was made popular by Charles Baudelaire writing in Le Figaro in 1863. “The crowd is his [the flaneur]element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world—impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito. The lover of life makes the whole world his family, just like the lover of the fair sex who builds up his family from all the beautiful women that he has ever found, or that are or are not—to be found; or the lover of pictures who lives in a magical society of dreams painted on canvas. Thus the lover of universal life enters into the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy. Or we might liken him to a mirror as vast as the crowd itself; or to a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding to each one of its movements and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life.”

The flaneur was usually a man of indpendent means.

[vii]The “Me too” movement would have been incomprehensible to a 19thcentury man. 19thcentury women, like their medieval forebears, were still supposed to be subservient, obedient, chaste and silent in the presence of their male companions and their status was that of chattel, the definition of which is ‘moveable property’.  In England the status of a wife as a chattel did not change until 1stJanuary, 1974 with the enactment of The Matrimonial Causes Act. Up until then, a married woman took the domicile of spouse because she was not considered as having a identity of her own.


© Melanie V Taylor 2018.

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