Why Study Art History?

The History of Art and Architecture concentration offers training in the interpretation and critical analysis of art and architecture. It develops skills in visual discrimination and verbal expression which are of fundamental value to your life at Harvard and beyond. In an era marked by the mass proliferation of images, chiefly through digital technologies and platforms, the cultivation of visual acuity and critical discernment is all the more pressing.

Encompassing material from the widest range of geographic and historical origins, art history is itself a multifaceted discipline embracing many different methods, perspectives, and interests. Sometimes it deduces from artworks the time and place of their making, or the identity of their makers. Sometimes it examines how concepts, ideals, and sensibilities of people of the past are expressed in their art, and further, how that art influenced wider aspects of their culture. Sometimes it explores within buildings, towns, and cities the dynamic between human and natural worlds. These and other approaches are reflected in the teaching and scholarship of the Faculty. Training in the critical analysis of art seeks to clarify the perception—and understanding—of how artworks relate to the techniques and materials used in their making, and to the environment in which they are seen. It also fosters the ability to make and explain judgments of quality and value.The History of Art and Architecture concentration is structured to take the student through a sequence of introductory courses and tutorials to more advanced pro-seminars and seminars. Students select a “major” area of study—one of the many fields represented by our Faculty—while at the same time receiving a broad formation across the discipline. The senior year is devoted to the completion of coursework and the senior thesis (writers of senior theses participate in a seminar led by the Senior Thesis Tutor, a course designed specifically about the processes of research, resources, argument, and writing). Another feature of our concentration is the Architecture Studies track which pursues the study of architecture—its history, theory, and practice—with the spirit of a liberal arts education. The studio component of the track is jointly administered with the Graduate School of Design. Throughout these years of study, concentrators in History of Art and Architecture work with a host of primary research materials in Harvard’s incomparable libraries and museums. The new facilities of the Harvard Art Museums—its galleries, Art Study Centers, Materials and Paper Labs, Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies—are used intensively for group instruction and detailed examination.


Living Room in 485 Broadway, students reading and conversing

Photography by Anton Grassl   

The Faculty takes great satisfaction in teaching and advising our undergraduate concentrators. It begins for many with the sophomore excursion seminar. Offered in the spring semester each year, it is co-taught by a group of Faculty and graduate students about a country, region, or a city, and its art and architecture. Some past examples include the cities of Berlin, Vienna, and Rome, with multi-site visits throughout Japan, the Netherlands, Peru, Spain, and Turkey. Research preparations are made during the semester and culminate with a period of immersive fieldwork in May. The seminar guides students through an intensive mode of research and fieldwork which together underscore the vital necessity of directly engaging the monuments and objects studied by historians of art and architecture. Supported by a gift from David Rockefeller, the sophomore seminar embodies the value of cross-generational learning.

As a mid-size concentration, History of Art and Architecture offers many opportunities for instruction in smaller group settings, from tutorials to seminars, and takes great pride in the range of its advising opportunities led by our Director of Undergraduate Studies. Conversations between Faculty and undergraduate concentrators extend from work being done in courses, to the thesis, to summer internship opportunities, and life beyond Harvard.


Students enthusiastically engaging with lecturer during class

Photography by Anton Grassl