online course history of art

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This history of art short course online covers the history of art from a variety of perspectives. We will study the historical, social, and political context in which art was produced and how artists throughout history have responded to one another. You will be introduced to the various media and techniques used by artists and encouraged to analyze works of art yourself. This course is not only informative but should also be interesting, entertaining, and inspiring. Using a wide range of relevant examples, we will look at painting, sculpture, architecture, prints, drawings, photography and video art by both famous artists and less well known ones. We will learn about their lives and work as well as their impact on newer generations of artists. Along the way you will get tips on how to look at art to better understand it: both looking up close as well as seeing it in its broader context. And most importantly we will have fun doing this; after all, that’s why we love looking at art! This course is suitable for anyone who is interested in learning about visual arts in an enjoyable format for example those wanting to get up to speed before visiting an art gallery or museum or those planning a trip abroad and wanting some insights into what they might see along the way.

History of Art explores the history of paintings, sculptures, and architecture through the ages. It is a dense subject to study but one that can be rewarding if you have a genuine interest in it. The course will give you the framework for understanding its evolution and development throughout time. It will also help you learn how to look at art with new eyes, better understanding what makes it great and what makes it beautiful.

The history of art refers to the history of a visual arts discipline. The Antiquity and its propagation through the rise of Christianity, the period of classical civilizations and the age of European dominance are some aspects involved in the field’s development throughout time.

The 14 best online art history courses from Harvard, MIT, the MoMA, and more

Museums & Public Art

Tangible Things: Discovering History Through Artworks, Artifacts, Scientific Specimens, and the Stuff Around You

Through an examination of Harvard-owned artifacts, this course unravels the mysteries of museums, archives, and libraries. You will learn about the curator’s role in maintaining collections, the processes behind curatorial decisions, and how to discern the intention behind collections — whether it be for monetary purposes, memory preservation, or some other reason. 

You will also learn how the arrangement of objects affects how a collection is perceived and interpreted by viewers. This knowledge is particularly valuable since one of the most important powers a curator wields is the ability to frame and contextualize conversations surrounding art — a power rooted largely in the build and organization of their collections.

ART of the MOOC: Public Art and Pedagogy

If you’ve ever seen a sculpture in a park or strolled by a colorful mural on the side of a building, you’ve encountered public art. Public art installations may seem like a straightforward concept, but it has a history of being controversial, from Richard Serra’s “Tilted Arc” to Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial. This Duke course will help you learn about the dialogue and efforts surrounding public art’s implementation, reception, and purpose.

This course acknowledges public art as socially engaged art, which is important considering how public art production typically requires consideration of the collective’s needs as opposed to the individual artist’s needs. Thus, you will learn how public art can incite educational discussions and consequently fuel criticism of pre-existing understandings of art. Amid exploring the intersection of space and art, students will also have the opportunity to conduct their own experiments related to spatial politics.

Prehistoric Art

Prehistoric Art: Beginning Art for Artists and Designers

When it comes to art history, you will often find a slew of courses covering topics such as Renaissance and modern art. This is largely thanks to the preservation of historical records from these time periods. Since being prehistoric means existing before recorded history, courses on prehistoric art aren’t afforded the same luxury as their successors and tend to be more elusive. However, it’s the era’s lack of documentation that helps make prehistoric art so captivating. 

Topics you will study in this course include art from the Ice Age, Spain’s Cave of Altamira, Prehistoric America, and Aboriginal Australians. The cave drawings and other carvings you will learn about are crucial, as they grant insight into the thoughts, actions, and daily lives of those who roamed the earth long before us. Prehistoric art may at first appear to be an enigma, but once deciphered, it can greatly inform our understanding of the human experience’s early days and development.

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Ancient Art

30 Masterpieces of the Ancient World 

Amazon Prime members have access to affordable classes designed by The Great Courses via  Prime Video. 30 Masterpieces of the Ancient World course begins by contextualizing the relevance of ancient art studies and what it means to be dubbed a “masterpiece,” then moves on to examine specific works from across the globe. The lesson wraps up by placing ancient masterpieces in conversation with contemporary works of art. 

This course is remarkably entertaining because it’s like a virtual travel experience — both geographically and temporally. You’ll be transported across the world as you learn about intriguing artifacts, from The Standard of Ur, which depicts scenes of Sumerian life in Mesopotamia, to the Olmec Colossal Heads, stone sculptures found on Mexico’s Gulf Coast. You’ll learn about Ancient China’s bronzes and how they relate to the excavated tomb of female military leader, Fu Hao, as well as how abstract art can be traced back to Ancient Andean Textiles — long before the style became a global phenomenon through mid-20th century artists like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.

Pyramids of Giza: Ancient Egyptian Art and Archaeology

The Pyramids of Giza are one of the greatest enigmas in the world — chances are you’ve heard a conspiracy theory or two about how these enormous, enduring structures came into existence. If you’re looking to demystify the Pyramids’ history, this course is the perfect launchpad for your expedition into the curious, overlapping worlds of art history and archaeology. 

By examining the findings of archaeologists who explored the Pyramids, decoding hieroglyphics, and analyzing Egyptian art from the same time the pyramids were created, this course constructs a vivid image of Ancient Egyptian life. It considers the Pyramids not only as perennial architectural feats but also as important cultural and religious objects. There’s also a modern element to the course, since you’ll learn how advancements in tech are shaping the future of Egyptology.

Early Modern Period

This course encompasses the Early Modern period of European Art, focusing specifically on paintings. It examines the lives and works of Leonardo da Vinci (Italian polymath), Caravaggio (Italian painter), Velázquez (Spanish Baroque painter), Rembrandt (Dutch painter), Vermeer (Dutch Baroque painter), and Goya (Spanish Romanticism painter). 

During the Early Modern period, realistic art that demonstrated an artists’ superior technical skill was highly revered and paintings were typically created to depict a story. However, since a painting could only show a snapshot of the plot, viewers were expected to possess a certain level of background knowledge in order to understand the paintings’ stories. This course will provide you with the knowledge needed to identify and interpret Early Modern art, as well the language and philosophies to properly engage in conversations surrounding the art.

19th Century Art

As an avid manga reader, I enrolled in this course to gain a better understanding of Japan’s long history of employing words and images simultaneously to fully tell a story. Artists covered in this University of Tokyo course include painter Watanabe Kazan, writer Yoshida Shōin, and painter Takahashi Yuichi. The instructor, professor Robert Campbell, creates an engaging learning environment by weaving the course material into a wonderful storytelling experience.

In this class, you will learn how samurai often inscribed personal messages on their personal portraits, as well as how artists wrote directly onto their art to describe the occurrences in fictional depictions. Figures portrayed in Japanese paintings were often attributed backstories or context so anyone viewing the art could accurately interpret what they were seeing. This combination of art and text to make art understandable to any viewer stands in stark juxtaposition with Early Modern European artists’ expectation that people possess a certain degree of background knowledge when viewing art.

Modern & Contemporary Art

Modern and Contemporary Art and Design Specialization

Offered by the Museum of Modern Art, this specialization emulates a museum tour and consists of four courses: Modern Art & Ideas, Seeing Through Photographs, What Is Contemporary Art?, and Fashion as Design. The course material is a combination of audio interviews, films, and readings.

Modern art is typically understood to encompass works produced around the later half of the 19th century until the early half of the twentieth century. Throughout Modern Art & Ideas, you will explore how an artwork interacts with its environment and the external socio-political issues of a given time. 

Seeing Through Photographs is all about understanding photography’s history and development. While examining photos from the MOMA’s collection, you will learn about the different artistic, scientific, historical, and journalistic uses of photography.

Contemporary art encompasses art created from around the later half of the 20th century until the present day. What Is Contemporary Art? lets you virtually step inside artists’ studios and learn about the materials and intent behind contemporary artworks.

The final course of this specialization, Fashion as Design, explores the cultural importance of clothing and ethical issues surrounding the fashion industry. You will learn how fashion can mirror or catalyze wider-scoped movements, values, and societal trends.


Surrealism is all about depicting the mind’s subconscious and liberating the deepest recesses of the human imagination, which means some wildly creative pieces have come out of the movement. An offshoot of Dadaism, Surrealism bestows realistic qualities to unrealistic scenes,  embracing the phantasmic and abandoning the rational.

If you’re fascinated by the bizarre dream landscapes you sometimes enter while asleep, you should check out Khan Academy’s free readings and videos on Surrealism. After all, the movement’s artwork is commonly described as dreamlike. The material covers influential artists such as Frida Kahlo, Salvador Dalí, and Man Ray. You will learn about Surrealism’s manifestation in mediums such as painting, sculpture, collage, and photography, as well as the role of women, psychoanalysis, and automatism in its creation.

Global Africa: Creative Cultures

MIT has made efforts to publish a considerable amount of its course materials online via MIT OpenCourseWare. Global Africa: Creative Cultures is taught by MIT professor M. Amah Edoh, and the syllabus combines anthropology, history, and social theory to provide an expansive view of Africa’s material and visual culture. The course also shows how Africa’s literary, musical, and artistic productions affect and reflect its positioning and interactions within global politics. 

Through a combination of videos and readings, you will study ideas put forth by intellectuals such as Princeton professor Chika Okeke-Agulu, Stanford professor Paulla A. Ebron, and acclaimed author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Under the Instructor Insights course tab, you can read more about the professor’s understanding and goals of the course — such as what she means when she refers to Africa as a category of thought. If you’re looking to unpack the unspoken power and political dynamics embedded within visual culture, this course material is worth exploring.

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