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How to Look at and Understand Great Art

Featuring masterpieces from 250+ of the world's greatest artists, this in-depth guide to the practical skill of viewing art will help you reach new levels of appreciation.
How to Look at and Understand Great Art is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 247.
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Rated 4 out of 5 by from Worthwhile, but Could Have Been Brilliant This is not a comprehensive course about “Great” art. It is focused on Western (European and American) art from the Renaissance forward, and it is more about defining art movements rather than evaluating aesthetics. I found this to be a liability. In her discussion about “Lines” in Lecture 4, I thought that the cave art of Altamira or Lascaux would have been a superb example of the effectiveness of a few brushstrokes. Then the discussion could turn to Picasso. And I think the beautiful woodblock prints of China and Japan deserve to be presented on an equal footing with those of European artists. In short, I think Professor Hirsh’s limiting herself to Western art does a great disservice to anyone who really wants to learn about and appreciate art. Still, there are many reasons to view this course. The first 15 lectures are devoted primarily to “how” art is created rather than art history or movements. Professor Hirsh discusses the development of some materials available to artists from tempera to oils to acrylics and Jackson Pollock’s use of house paint. In lecture 14, she sets up an easel to demonstrate the difference between tempera and oil paints. However, once the easel is up, perhaps she should have optimized the use of it. What, exactly, are the properties and advantages of pastels, crayons, watercolors, etc.? Also, I think one of these lectures should have been devoted to colors – the minerals and substances used and the resulting effects. Professor Hirsh mentions the sometimes disastrous effects of varnishing but doesn’t discuss the liabilities of the paints themselves. Some paints are inherently unstable, and many of Turner’s landscapes have suffered from degradation. Glazes are mentioned, but, again, use of the canvas on the easel would have been appreciated. Two lectures are devoted to printmaking. The first, on the differences between relief and intaglio methods is well presented with demonstrations of the mechanics. Lectures 16 through 21 are about analyzing specific works of art within a genre, and this is where Professor Hirsh has some of her finest moments. Many of the choicest tidbits are dropped as asides while discussing main points. For example, the strangling power of the French Academy, a group of academicians who literally controlled the European art world for two centuries. Lectures 22 through 35 deal with the history of the development of artistic styles. These are presented chronologically, and representative pieces are shown. These lectures, while limited by time factors, are informative, and Professor Hirsh closes each one with a short review of key elements to look for when examining these works. After she devotes four lectures to art from the first half of the 20th Century, Professor Hirsh makes a rather casual lumping of the last 50 years into “Post-Modern.” The latest movements discussed were from the 1960s, and this was produced in 2011. She is in the company of most art historians who throw up their hands with an inability to categorize what is filling galleries and museums today. Curiously, she managed to neglect the Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements and the genius of Gustav Klimt. I generally enjoyed most of the artwork Professor Hirsh selected to illustrate her lectures. I was especially interested in some of the women artists she selected – Sofonisba Anguissola for the 16th century and Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Leyster, and Clara Peeters for the 17th century. The Course Guidebook is marginally useful. The digest of each lecture is lean. Some list all, or at least most of the works discussed in the lecture. There then follows a series of questions and a review of her “Tool Kit” for identifying key elements of the lecture. However, some synopses are maddeningly terse. For example, Professor Hirsh writes that Lecture 16 will focus on Peter Paul Rubens, and it does. But during the lecture itself, she shows the work of eleven other artists. None of the eleven artists or their works are mentioned in the lecture portion of the guidebook. In spite of that, the guidebook is deceptively plump. The “Tools” listed at the end of each lecture are all repeated in a separate section. There is a section devoted to listing all the works discussed in the lectures, but you have to search by artist, not lecture number. There are also sections labeled “Suggested Reading” which lists a few books for each lecture (which may have been more convenient placed at the end of the lecture?), a Timeline, Glossary, Biographical Notes, and Bibliography.
Date published: 2023-10-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A history of artistic movement. I wanted to learn more about art in general so I bought this course. I have been extremely pleased with it. Dr. Hirsh is an excellent lecturer and communicator. She knows the subject matter very well and is passionate about it. I would heartily recommend this to anyone interested in an introduction to the broad expanse of art history.
Date published: 2023-05-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Clear way of lecturing This was my first course on art. I enjoyed the the way the lecturer explains everything. Nice lady telling the subject enthusiastically. It helped me to put things in context.
Date published: 2023-01-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Insightful. This is a really useful course, and is already making me look at, not just 'Art' but all images, in a very different and more holistic way. The lectures are well presented and include examples from a far broader range of artwork than I had expected. Thank you.
Date published: 2022-12-18
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Interesting I am enjoying this lecture series. I must point out an error, however. The lecturer refers to the sculptor Camille Claudel as a male. She was most definitely female.
Date published: 2022-10-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Perfect foundational knowledge Dr. Hirsch's often appeared to be lecturing without notes; in a tour de force of general and specific knowledge about western art over the last 700 years, and hardly a word was wasted. This course was a great place to identify styles and eras of personal interest.
Date published: 2022-09-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Better understanding I really enjoyed the lecturer in this course. She was able to explain different styles of art in an understandable and enjoyable way. Excellent use of works of art to get her points across. I know that I will now get more out of my museum visits now.
Date published: 2022-08-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very well Organized! I actually majored in art in college and have been an artist on and off over the years. This was a wonderful review (I'm 74 now), and actually learned and relearned great content. I never understood the more modern art, now I do. I never miss a chance to go to a gallery or museum. This course greatly enhanced my ability to capture a more meaningful experience when I go now. Thanks for organizing this so well, it is easier to understand as we transition through the different periods.
Date published: 2022-08-08
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The 36 richly illustrated lectures of How to Look at and Understand Great Art take you on an in-depth exploration of the practical skill of viewing art through the lenses of line, light, perspective, composition, and other crucial elements. Using timeless masterpieces of Western art as well as hands-on studio demonstrations, Professor Sharon Latchaw Hirsh gives you the specific visual and interpretive knowledge you need to enhance your appreciation of great art.


Sharon Latchaw Hirsh

At Rosemont College we seek 'joy in the pursuit of knowledge.' I believe learning new ideas, or realizing something on your own brings joy. I create my lectures to stimulate this experience by making them as enjoyable as possible.


Rosemont College

Dr. Sharon Latchaw Hirsh has served as president of Rosemont College since 2006. She completed her undergraduate degree in the history of art and studio art at Rosemont and earned her M.A. and Ph.D. in the history of art from the University of Pittsburgh. Professor Hirsh's awards include the Charles A. Dana Award for Distinguished Teaching, the Ganoe Award for Inspirational Teaching, and the Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching from Dickinson College. She served as a senior fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and as a visiting scholar at the University of Colorado, the Swiss Institute for Art Research, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

By This Professor

How to Look at and Understand Great Art
How to Look at and Understand Great Art


The Importance of First Impressions

01: The Importance of First Impressions

Examine the contexts and environments in which we encounter art and their critical effect on our viewing experience. Consider ways of displaying and framing paintings, as well as key parameters for viewing sculpture. Then, learn the predominant genres of Western art, and the artist's media, tools, and techniques.

34 min
Where Am I? Point of View and Focal Point

02: Where Am I? Point of View and Focal Point

Explore how point of view—the artist's positioning of the viewer with respect to the image—works in painting and sculpture, paying particular attention to differences in angle and spatial relation. Then, continue with focal point, or the artist's centering of attention on a key area of the work.

30 min
Color—Description, Symbol, and More

03: Color—Description, Symbol, and More

Uncover the core principles of color in painting, including the distinctions of value and saturation and the relationship of colors as analogous or complementary. See how major works of art achieve their power and meaning through color, as seen in celebrated canvases by Seurat, Gauguin, and Van Gogh.

29 min
Line—Description and Expression

04: Line—Description and Expression

Discover the properties of line, another essential element of art, as "descriptive" (describing reality) or "expressional" (conveying feeling). Learn about the use of geometric lines, implied lines, and directional lines within a composition. Also, study the compelling, psychological use of line in Picasso's works, Seurat's "The Circus", and in key Modern and Expressionist works.

30 min
Space, Shape, Shade, and Shadow

05: Space, Shape, Shade, and Shadow

Examine geometric and "organic" shapes in painting and sculpture and the crucial relationship of figure to ground and mass to space. Then, explore the illusionistic use of shading, shadows, and overlapping shapes in Caravaggio's and Friedrich's works, and the compositional power of shapes in paintings such as Matisse's "Dance" and Michelangelo's "Creation of Adam".

30 min
Seeing the Big Picture—Composition

06: Seeing the Big Picture—Composition

Define symmetry and asymmetry in painting and sculpture, and the key effects on the viewer of each. Also, study scale and proportion of figures, and the distinction between "open" and "closed" composition, reflecting the artist's approach to visually framing the image.

30 min
The Illusion—Getting the Right Perspective

07: The Illusion—Getting the Right Perspective

Tracking the history of illusionism in Western art, grasp the principles of linear perspective, foreshortening, and atmospheric perspective as they replicate how the human eye perceives. See how artists, including Cézanne and Van Gogh, manipulated perspective for their own creative ends, and observe the extreme illusionism of trompe l'oeil and anamorphosis.

29 min
Art That Moves Us—Time and Motion

08: Art That Moves Us—Time and Motion

Explore how artists evoke motion and the passage of time, including implying motion through strong directional lines and time through narrative devices. Study approaches to implied motion in Impressionism, Abstract Expressionism, and Op art, and the use of actual motion in performance art and modern sculpture.

29 min
Feeling with Our Eyes—Texture and Light

09: Feeling with Our Eyes—Texture and Light

Here, consider texture in sculpture as an aid to meaning in sculptures by Rodin, Donatello, and Bernini, and the painter's use of paint as a way to capture texture and light on canvas. Then observe the virtuoso representation of texture by master painters Ingres and Titian, and the handling of light and shadow in works by Renoir and Georges de la Tour.

29 min
Drawing—Dry, Liquid, and Modern Media

10: Drawing—Dry, Liquid, and Modern Media

In this first lecture on genre, define the various purposes of drawings, from "croquis" drawing to capture a pose or action, to successive sketches visualizing larger works, to finished drawings as a distinct art. Study the diverse media of drawing, focusing on master drawings in metalpoint, charcoal, ink, pastel, and pencil.

31 min
Printmaking—Relief and Intaglio

11: Printmaking—Relief and Intaglio

The medium of prints attracted great artists from Dürer and Rembrandt to Ensor and Picasso. Using studio demonstrations, study the expressive means and contrasting techniques of relief printmaking, including woodcut, wood engraving, and linocut, and intaglio printmaking, including metal engraving, etching, mezzotint, and aquatint.

33 min
Modern Printmaking—Planographic

12: Modern Printmaking—Planographic

This lecture explores the art of planographic printmaking, which allows artists to draw or paint directly on the printing surface. In detailed demonstrations and works by Daumier, Degas, and Warhol, grasp the techniques of lithography, silkscreen, and monotype, and explore the mastery of Whistler's lithograph "Nocturne: The Thames at Battersea."

29 min
Sculpture—Salt Cellars to Monuments

13: Sculpture—Salt Cellars to Monuments

Sculpture, as a genre, encompasses the full spectrum of three-dimensional artworks. In this lecture, investigate the varieties and viewing contexts of relief and in-the-round sculptures—from monumental public works and religious and historical subjects to assemblage, collage, found objects, and large-scale "earth art"—noting the technical distinction between subtractive and additive work.

31 min
Development of Painting—Tempera and Oils

14: Development of Painting—Tempera and Oils

Trace the history and technique of painting, beginning with the methodology of panel painting on wood; fresco painting, both wet and dry; and finally, oil painting and watercolor. Learn about types of oil paint, the mixing of colors, brushwork techniques, and the 19th-century phenomenon of plein air (outdoor) painting.

29 min
Modern Painting—Acrylics and Assemblages

15: Modern Painting—Acrylics and Assemblages

The lecture opens with a historical panorama of painting techniques, highlighting the diverse treatment of human faces. Then, it tracks 20th-century developments in nontraditional materials and methods of application, including the techniques of Frank Stella, Helen Frankenthaler, and Jackson Pollock, as well as the contrasting strengths and mixed use of oil and acrylics.

31 min
Subject Matters

16: Subject Matters

Focusing on masterworks by Van Eyck and Rubens, define three levels of iconography (subject matter). Also study the academic codifying and ranking of subject matter in art, probing subject and deeper meaning in a variety of religious and history paintings, still lifes, landscapes, portraits, and genre works.

30 min
Signs—Symbols, Icons, and Indexes in Art

17: Signs—Symbols, Icons, and Indexes in Art

The richness of signs (signifiers) in art includes the use of symbols, icons, and indexes as they reveal layers of meaning. See how, in different historical eras, symbolic associations change over time, how icons visually represent a subject, and how indexes exhibit direct connections with the thing signified.

32 min
Portraits—How Artists See Others

18: Portraits—How Artists See Others

In examining the diverse functions and types of portraits, study the important elements of facial presentation and the subject's position and gaze with relation to the viewer and the pictorial space. See how Rembrandt added dramatic power to his group "corporation" portraits, and how David carefully rendered Napoleon in symbolic terms.

32 min
Self-Portraits—How Artists See Themselves

19: Self-Portraits—How Artists See Themselves

Across the centuries, self-portraits fascinatingly reveal the changing role of the artist. Follow this progression, from Renaissance painters subtly placing themselves within large compositions, to self-portraiture's emergence as a major form of self-revelation, noting many dramatic and colorful traditions within the form.

31 min
Landscapes—Art of the Great Outdoors

20: Landscapes—Art of the Great Outdoors

In this lecture on landscape painting, observe the classical, balanced division into foreground, middle, and background, and how Romantic painters altered these proportions to express drama, infinite space, and the sublime. Discover proportion and composition in landscapes of the Hudson River school, Luminism, Impressionism, and also the subgenres of seascapes and cityscapes.

32 min
Putting It All Together

21: Putting It All Together

This lecture integrates elements including color, line, shape, composition, light, symbolism, point of view, and focal point. Using the viewing tools you've developed, look deeply at four diverse masterpieces, including a sculpture by Thorvaldsen, a "vanitas" still life by Van Oosterwyck, a lithograph by Bonnard, and a painting by Van der Weyden.

31 min
Early Renaissance—Humanism Emergent

22: Early Renaissance—Humanism Emergent

Contemplate the Renaissance phenomena of classicism and humanism in 15th-century Italian art, which focused—even in religious art—on the human body, nature, and depictions of earthly life and the individual. Learn how to recognize Early Renaissance art in characteristic subject matter and stylistic technique.

28 min
Northern Renaissance—Devil in the Details

23: Northern Renaissance—Devil in the Details

Flanders and Germany also witnessed an explosion of art in the 15th and early 16th centuries. Define the stylistics of great Northern Renaissance oil painting, such as the use of cool light, richness of detail, and the depiction of fabric. Conclude by charting the development of the historical "canon" of universally recognized artworks.

31 min
High Renaissance—Humanism Perfected

24: High Renaissance—Humanism Perfected

The Italian High Renaissance saw the full flowering of humanism and classicism. With reference to the era's thought and practice, delve into masterpieces by three of history's greatest geniuses: Raphael, Leonardo, and Michelangelo. Last, explore the composition of Raphael's School of Athens as it represents the sublime embodiment of High Renaissance ideals.

31 min
Mannerism and Baroque—Distortion and Drama

25: Mannerism and Baroque—Distortion and Drama

Two important artistic movements followed the High Renaissance. Beginning with late Michelangelo, Tibaldi, and El Greco, explore the hallmarks of Mannerism, including deliberate distortions of proportion and perspective and use of tertiary colors. Then, in the works of Caravaggio, Rubens, and others, define the essence of Baroque art in its dramatic, exuberant expansion of classical style.

31 min
Going Baroque—North versus South

26: Going Baroque—North versus South

Baroque style flowered in key regional variations. See the influence of the Counter-Reformation in southern Europe in dazzling religious images intended to excite and teach. Grasp the classical ethos of French Baroque and the Dutch diversity of subject matter and dramatic use of light and space in the North.

31 min
18th-Century Reality and Decorative Rococo

27: 18th-Century Reality and Decorative Rococo

The sensuality of Rococo art mirrors 18th-century upper-class lifestyle and sensibility. Explore the evocation of intimate hedonism in Watteau, Boucher, Fragonard, and other Rococo masters, specifically through their imagery of lovers, social life, and pastoral pleasure. Then, define Rococo style in its graceful curves and characteristic use of paint and color.

29 min
Revolutions—Neoclassicism and Romanticism

28: Revolutions—Neoclassicism and Romanticism

The early 19th century saw the emergence of two compelling and highly contrasting styles. Referencing the art of Napoleonic painter Jacques-Louis David, discover the tenets of Neoclassicism, specifically its ordered composition and emphasis on stoicism, morality, and rational control. In works by Eugène Delacroix, find the spirit of Romanticism and its concern with dramatic proportions and expression of emotion.

32 min
From Realism to Impressionism

29: From Realism to Impressionism

In canvases of Millet, Courbet, and Manet, observe the Realist ideals of honesty, simplicity, and descriptive colors in revealing contemporary experience. Then, explore the phenomenon of Impressionism, highlighting Renoir, Monet, and Degas—their fascination with natural light, quest to capture the moment, and iconic subject matter of middle-class leisure life.

32 min
Postimpressionism—Form and Content Re-Viewed

30: Postimpressionism—Form and Content Re-Viewed

The term "Postimpressionism" comprises a varied and highly innovative body of art. Here, learn how Postimpressionist painters such as Cézanne and Seurat were driven by what they perceived as a loss of form in Impressionist art. See also how Symbolists Gauguin and Munch used increasing abstraction to convey deeper psychological meanings.

31 min
Expressionism—Empathy and Emotion

31: Expressionism—Empathy and Emotion

In defining the bold sensibility of Expressionism, explore its use of violent colors, stylistic distortions, and sculptural application of paint. Also contemplate its influences (including contemporary philosophers as well as Freud) and its goal to provoke empathy and thus touch the viewer at the innermost level.

32 min
Cubism—An Experiment in Form

32: Cubism—An Experiment in Form

Investigate the visual elements and the three phases of this hugely influential movement, based in its geometric fracturing of forms and multiple, interlocking meanings of line and shape. Find borrowings and echoes of Braque's and Picasso's Cubism in diverse 20th-century painters and experiments in Cubist-derived sculpture.

30 min
Abstraction/Modernism—New Visual Language

33: Abstraction/Modernism—New Visual Language

Abstraction and Modernism forged a daring new definition of art, breaking dramatically with the past. Discover the philosophical and experiential underpinnings of abstraction and nonrepresentational art, now radically freed from imitating nature. Encounter art's new language in visionary works by Kandinsky, Marc, Pollock, De Kooning, and others.

31 min
Dada Found Objects/Surreal Doodles and Dreams

34: Dada Found Objects/Surreal Doodles and Dreams

Contemplate the "anti-art" spirit of Dadaism, its nihilistic yet humorous indictment of civilization and bizarre use of unconventional media. In the sensibility of Surrealism, observe its compelling focus on the subconscious and two substyles—dream imagery, with its juxtaposition of objects and settings, and "automatic drawing," eliciting unplanned images from the unconscious.

31 min
Postmodernism—Focus on the Viewer

35: Postmodernism—Focus on the Viewer

In the 1960s, Pop art, Op art, and minimalism brought yet another far-reaching redefinition of art. Learn to recognize these three distinct postmodern visions, and see how they shared a common rejection of the traditional focus on the artist, aiming instead to create works that exist only for the viewer's interpretation.

29 min
Your Next Museum Visit—Do It Yourself!

36: Your Next Museum Visit—Do It Yourself!

The final lecture opens with a detailed and thought-provoking guide to museum-going. Consider ways of making the most of visits to permanent collections and special exhibitions in both large and small museums. Conclude with a sumptuous review involving masterworks from the many eras, movements, and schools you've looked at.

34 min