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HA 112 History of Western Art and Civilization: Renaissance to the Modern Era

About Art in NYC museums assignments

Do you have to visit a museum and select an art work to analyze - looking at its iconography*, elements of design & composition, cultural, social, and/or historical context?  Try the suggestions on this page!

The Harvesters by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1565

The Harvesters by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1565 

*iconography: study of the subject-matter rather than the form of a work of art

Researching an art work

At the Museum

  • Select an art work
    • Be sure it meets the requirements of your assignment in terms of period of art, date range, artists, or any other restrictions.
    • Tip: Select more than one art work to start in case you don't easily find enough research material on, or have other issues with, your first choice later.
  • Copy all information on the art work's label
    • Include artist's name, title of art work, date, medium, accession number, purchase fund & date, and any other useful text.
    • Caution: Works on display may not be owned by the museum - some are on loan for special exhibits.  In this case, note the name of lending museum/collection. Their website often provides additional useful information.
  • Study the art work carefully
    • Take notes on what you see. Taking notes is permitted in almost all museums. These help you remember the work, understand your research and may allow you to draw your own conclusions.
  • Get an image
    • Securing an image in the museum may help you remember the work without confusing it with similar works by the same or other artists or works with similar titles. It can also help you identify it when others refer to it. You can look for a better image to include in your report, if necessary, during the research phase of the project.
    • Some museums let you take a photo without a flash; be sure to ask a guard first.
    • Sometimes you can find a postcard of the work in the museum's gift shop.

If you pick an art work without seeing it first - and you must see it in person - be sure it is on display in the museum.  Many museums show only a portion of the art works they own at any time.  Other pieces may be in storage or on loan to other museums for exhibitions. Museum websites often indicate which owned works of art are currently on display.  

Museum website as resource:

  • Search museum's website for individual art work.
  • Information varies by website & art work, but may be extensive, including: gallery label, catalogue entry, provenance (ownership history), exhibition history, & references. Example: The Harvesters, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, on the Met's website.  
  • Look for references to specific resources, such as exhibit catalogs (under 'Exhibition History', in our example) and books and/or journal articles (under 'References'). To determine if the FIT Library owns these resources, check StyleCat, for books and exhibit catalogs, and the E-journal portal, for journal, magazine and newspaper articles. 

Library research:

  • Research the artist (from our example, Pieter Bruegel), the art work (The Harvesters), the style or movement, the place and/or time period and/or material (Early Netherlandish painting), the genre (landscape art), the museum or collection owning the work (Metropolitan Museum of Art).
  • Use StyleCat to find books in these research areas.  
  • To find articles, start with JSTOR or art databases such as Art Full Text Art Index Retrospective. 
    *Tip: JSTOR is a full-text database of academic journals, each from its first issue published (some back to the 19th century) to near current. Included are many museum bulletins and publications which feature individual art works, with announcements of their acquisition, feature articles, etc. For example, see this article on The Harvesters from The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, May 1921, shortly after it was acquired by the Museum. 
  • You may also want to go to a museum library to do research.  See 'Using Museum Libraries'.

Find Books, Articles, Images & More

These databases feature downloadable, high resolution images of art works. 

For more help finding an image, see the 'Image Research' page in the Art History and Fine Arts research guide.

Many articles found through the databases above are available in full-text online.  However, if one shows only a citation or abstract you can request a pdf of the article using our Interlibrary Loan service (it's free!)

For more:

For more on the cultural, social, historical, and other time period related context of art work, refer to the Art in Context page of this guide.

Have a question or comment about these guides? Contact: