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Art: Topics in Art History

Art LibGuide

Finding relevant resources

Research topics in art history can be rich combinations of themes and influences. You may begin to develop your topic with a specific country or geographic area in mind.  Studies often focus on a particular artist and interpretations of style.  Materials, such as porcelain or bronze, and specific techniques such as fresco, watercolor or engraving are also rewarding areas for research.  Combining materials and styles in a particular place or period of time is a common way to develop a more complex research topic. For example, what are some of the key features of Abstract Expressionist painting? What materials have been used in feminist body art? Are there common motifs used in Scandinavian weaving and embroidery?

To develop complex topics further, consider a specific time period, a specific location, or specific practitioners. Who are some of Mexico's women photographers and what are key features in their work? What are differences in the graffiti art of Los Angeles and New York City? Is there a Pacific Northwest style of art?

The study of art history includes terms describing styles and periods that are central concepts in the discipline. Distinct historical time periods such as Hellenistic, Medieval and Renaissance can serve as organizing concepts to describe significant periods artistic activity. Other important organizing concepts refer to stylist attributes, such as Mannerist, Gothic, or Moderne. Sometimes specific groups of artists give rise to a school of work that refers both to stylistic or philosophical tendencies called movements or genres. Fauvism, Bauhaus, and Postmodern are examples of this.

Develop a research plan

Develop your research topic.

What are the key concepts of your topic?  Can you broaden or narrow your focus?  Are you researching a particular artist?

Consider focusing on one or more of the following:

  • time period
  • place
  • specific event   
  • specific people
  • historic events of the time

Does your topic overlap other subject areas such as anthropology, geography or political science?

Think of 2- 3 questions that you will need to explore.

  • Think about the artist you are researching and the artist's major influences.
  • Who were the major patrons of the artist?  Did the artist use recurring subjects? 
  • What was the historical period of your topic and its categories.
  • Who were the important people? What did they do? What happened that was significant?

Under each question, think about the following aspects:

  • What do you already know about your artist, topic or issue?
  • What do you need to learn to better understand your artist, topic or issue?
  • What kind of information or resource might provide the answer to these questions?
  • Are there new developments in this field of research?

    Consider your audience.

    • Who will read your paper?
    • Why will it be of interest to them?
    • What will be new to them?
    • How will you distinguish your findings from the research in other publications on the same topic?

    Sample research topics

    The research topics below combine style periods with individual artists and examples of a particular work of that artist along with an interpretation of that work. 


    Period or Movement





    Carlo Crivelli

    Madonna and Child

    Imagery and symbolism

    Northern Renaissance

    Hans Memling


    Manifestations of nobility

    Abstract Expressionism

    Willem de Kooning

    Woman series

    Evolution and devolution




    Political and philosophical communications

    Parmigianino’s Antea

    Parmigianino’s Antea ( c. 1535-1537) Museo di Capodimonte. [Image courtesy of ARTstor.]

    Using keywords

    Before you begin your research, review keywords that will help you locate relevant material.

    Examples of periods and styles:

    • Mesopotamian
    • Egyptian
    • Persian
    • Oceanian
    • Hellenistic
    • Roman
    • Byzantine
    • Medieval
    • Gothic
    • Minoan
    • Renanissance
    • Mesoamerican
    • Ottoman

    Examples of movements and genres:

    • Mannerism
    • Surrealism
    • Pop-Art
    • Romanticism
    • Impressionism
    • Neoclassicism
    • Abstract Expressionism
    • Cubism
    • Baroque
    • Art Nouveau
    • Digital Art
    • Fauvism
    • Postmodern

    Examples of materials and techniques:

    • ceramic
    • bronze
    • marble
    • fresco
    • tapestry
    • mosiac
    • collage
    • silkscreen
    • miniatures
    • illustration
    • tempera
    • engraving
    • etching
    • ukiyo-e
    • watercolor
    • woodblock prints