Reading: What is art history?

While checking my bookshelves for anything that might be relevant for my new course I was surprised to find a book called What is art history? by Mark Roskill. It’s a 1982 reprint – I was living in London at that time and suspect I bought it then, put it unread on a shelf and it’s been following me around unnoticed ever since. I’m happy to report that after thirty years it has now been read!

The book is intended as a general introduction and each chapter introduces examples illustrating different aspects of the discipline. There is attribution of a painting or other work of art, the “discovery” of an artist by identifying links between a number of works, investigation of how works would have been displayed and understood originally, detection of fraud, and the application of art historical methods to gain better understanding of even recent works.

There was an interesting section on finding the disguised meaning in paintings, with one example being by Diego Velasquez, The Tapestry Weavers (The Fable of Arachne) (ca. 1567). The painting is in the Prado in Madrid – see Click on the ‘enlarge’ icon to get a nice large image – it’s good enough that you can see that in addition to women spinning and winding yarn, there’s one carding the wool. In his book Roskill gives earlier interpretations of the subject as a simple scene in a tapestry workshop. He then presents updated interpretations published in the 1940s which recognise the goddess Athena and the illustration of the classical myth of Arachne. The text on the Prado website gives a similar but slightly different explanation. It seems everything is always open to review and refinement.

I wonder how much the work of Art History has changed or developed in the last few decades. Certainly some of the more newsworthy activities continue (that’s “newsworthy” in the sense of attracting general interest). In the press this week was a story about a painting in the UK that was gifted to the National Trust a few years ago and has now been identified as painted by Rembrandt – see Further tests are planned.


Clark, N. (2013) Rembrandt painting in Devon abbey long thought to be pupil’s work is £20m a self-portrait. The Independent. 18 March 2013. [Accessed 22-Mar-2013].

Roksill, M. (1976) What is Art History? London: Thames and Hudson Ltd. [Accessed 22-Mar-2013]

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March 2013

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