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Art History

Felicity Ratté

Art history is, by its nature, an interdisciplinary discipline. It utilizes the methods and practices of a number of the disciplines of the traditional humanities core such as history and literature as well as a number of the social science disciplines including anthropology, sociology, political science and, increasingly today, social geography. While art historians are trained in a unique set of skills that enable them to analyze the form and meaning of works of art and architecture and conduct archival research, they must also understand chronology, literary and linguistic analysis and historiography. Therefore, students interested in art history should be prepared to study broadly across the curriculum throughout all four years.

Emphasis in art history courses is on developing the following skills: visual and aesthetic understanding of a work of art or a building and an ability to explain this to others in both written and oral form; an ability to critically assess information and its source, distinguishing between the meaning and value of primary and secondary sources; and the knowledge of historical context and its constructedness.

My research into the painting and architecture of 13th- and 14th-century Italy combines the study of culture and art with a focus on its interaction with social and religious practice. Although I am a medievalist I am interested in the way in which art and social meaning is produced in all periods and all cultures. I am particularly interested in the relationship between artistic, architectural and urban spatial production and power and its multiple manifestations, from propaganda to historical revisionism. Recently I have begun a comparative analysis of urban design in the Mediterranean world with a focus on Egypt and Italy.

Marlboro’s art history curriculum sketched below is designed to introduce students to the complex web of skills and methods that art historians utilize as well as to excite students in the pleasure of critical seeing. The curriculum is designed around four interlocking, cross-cultural themes that underpin much of the artistic production of many world cultures from the ancient to the contemporary period. These themes are:

  • Cities and People: Courses designed around this theme focus on the importance of the development of the urban form from the ancient world up to the present. The unique qualities of the urban experience and the cross-cultural exchange that takes place within the city frame will allow us to study architecture, sculpture and pictorial representation as well as cultural exchange and difference as we look comparatively at cities across the globe.
  • Seeing and Imagining: Courses designed around this theme focus on pictorial production and the relationship between seeing and representing. Media studied include paintings, drawings and numerous modern media from video to television. Courses in seeing and imagining cover a vast chronological range from the first century to the 21st.
  • Power and Empire: Courses following this theme are designed to introduce students to the way visual imagery, built forms and space work both in service of, and against, hegemonic power structures and their adherents.
  • Gods and their Representations: In most cultures a vast amount of artistic production is in service of religious practice. The courses in this thematic framework will focus on the artistic production of three of the world’s largest religions: Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. We will use a broad definition of the concept of representation that will include both the plastic arts and architecture.

Although the courses designed around these themes cover a great deal of the world, they are not exhaustive; thus this curriculum is dependent upon the courses offered in other areas, by other professors. For example, a solid understanding of global art history cannot be achieved without having taken courses in Asian studies and a visual studies focus is not possible without the skills developed in studio or performing art courses and the disciplines of anthropology and cultural history. Therefore, students planning on doing Plan work in art history will need to have taken courses across the curriculum depending upon the focus of their work. What exactly these courses are should be worked out with your academic advisor.

Areas of Interest for Plan-level Work:

  • Urban design and architectural practice (Global and transhistorical)
  • Public art (Europe, the United States, Egypt and India - medieval to modern)
  • Religious art and ritual practice (Islamic, Christian and Hindu - medieval to modern)

Starting Points (Basic and Introductory Courses)

Survey I – From the Ancient World to the 15th century - offered alternating years - Fall


The aim of this class is to introduce students to the history of art and its objects from the period of the cities and empires in the Ancient Near East up to the beginning of the European Renaissance in the 15th century. We will study works of painting, sculpture and architecture from a vast array of different cultures with an aim to developing students’ analytical capacities in looking at and understanding a work of art formally, culturally and contextually within both the History of Art and the History of the History of Art.




Survey II – From the 15th century to the present - offered alternating years - Spring 


This class is a continuation of Survey I although it differs methodologically. We will focus on a select number of particular works of art each semester, thus the class may be taken more than once since the material of the class and readings will change from semester to semester. The aim of the class is to develop the skill sets introduced in the first half of the survey by looking at, analyzing and reading about specific works in depth. In addition, time will be spent discussing the different ways in which Art Historians have organized the discourse including chronological and media structures and stylistic and cultural categories.





Visual Literacy from Leonardo to Lady Gaga – offered alternating years – Fall


Visual material is arguably now a more prevalent means of communication than language. But like language it is not always clear that the message being sent is the one that is received. This class takes as a given that it is essential for us to be cognizant of the way in which images act in the world from propaganda to news photographs and from famous paintings to contemporary music videos. Thus the aim of the class will be to develop skills of critical image assessment, we will also think through choices that artists and others make about media, juxtapositions of text and image, delivery systems such as the internet and print media, and questions of universal applicability of an image.



The City – offered alternating years – Spring


This is an introductory class that deals with the history and development of the city from Ancient Mesopotamia to the Present day. We will leapfrog through time, understanding what is known and what is still unclear about the development and design of the cities in the Ancient world. The idea of the city in Christian thought (St Augustine) will be studied alongside the writing of Ibn Khaldun. The modern period will examine the seminal texts of Jane Jacobs as well as look at contemporary questions of sustainability and design, examining Masdar in the UAE, Singapore and Beijing, among others.




Pursuing Interests (Intermediate and Thematic Courses)

Cities have always been sites of protest, transformation, dream making and dream dashing, triumph, celebration and disaster. Human activity, building practices and civic authority all play a role in the creation and production of both the stage and the “play” of city life. This course undertakes to examine two historical cities, Florence and Cairo in the late 13th and early 14th centuries. Both were key cities of the Mediterranean world at this time, experiencing remarkable growth in their architectural fabric, their world renown and their earthly riches. The aim of the course is to probe, through an examination of primary documents and the built environment, what lived experience was like. Prerequisite: None Introductory – Intermediate Level | Credits 4

The 21st-century viewer is so accustomed to visual imagery that reproduces, in the most minute detail, the thing/view/person seen, that this kind of image production is taken to be the goal to which all image makers aspire (up until the modern period, that is). To many, the imagery of the classical periods in Western art history, Greece, Rome, the Italian Renaissance and 19th-century France set the standards by which much artistic production, even today, is measured. This course examines how, and attempts to understand why “classical” or  “naturalistic” or “realistic” vision transformed the artistic production of these cultures across time and space and why it continues to be important to us today. Prerequisite: None Introductory – Intermediate Level | Credits 4

This is a writing-based class designed for students who have passed the writing requirement and plan to do advanced work in the visual arts or art history. Although the focus of the class will be on writing and developing skills of visual analysis, we will also read and discuss various methodological approaches to visual culture and art criticism. Prerequisite: On Plan in art history     Intermediate/Advanced | Credits: Variable.

The purpose of this course is to better understand the meaning of “art history” as a discipline. In order to do this, we will read and critique a variety of “methods” for discussing art. For instance, most art historians agree that Raphael’s Transfiguration is an essential work in the history of pictorial representation. Why that is, however, has been hotly debated. In this seminar we will consider the complex ‘readings’ a work of art may be subject to, and how these readings have changed over time. Prerequisite: On Plan in art history     Advanced | Credits: 4

Good Foundation for Plan

Students who wish to pursue a Plan or a partial Plan in art history should think ahead through their four years and plan on taking both the Art History Questions and the Art Historical Methods class. They should study at least one foreign language, take some history and cultural history courses as well as courses in the social sciences, such as politics or anthropology. In addition they will want to take at least one studio art course to give them a sense of the challenges to the practitioner. Writing a Plan in art history will require a familiarity with the multiple different historical periods and cultures across the globe and the way art historians approach them. So, ideally, a student should begin with the art history survey and then follow with courses in at least three different chronological periods. Once this foundation work is done, Art Historical Methods, subject-specific seminars and tutorial work should be used to focus in on particular subject matter. Writing Art Historically is also highly recommended.

Sample Tutorial Topics

  • Urban design practice in Nasser's Cairo
  • Feminist Art Practice and the Canon
  • Harmony in Architecture: Mantua and Edirne in the 15th century
  • Romanticism and the New Romantic Artists of the 21st Century
  • Theater, Spectacle and the Italian Baroque
  • Women in the History of Art
  • Representations of Food in the History of Art