Art History of the Western European Tradition

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Authored by Ross Bresler, Anthony Scibilia


Course Code: OLART-231

Next semester starts September 23

12 Weeks

Level 2

Level 2

3-Credit Tuition


Non-Credit Tuition


This is a required course for Berklee College of Music campus students, and they often wonder—when they are here to study music—how looking at visual works is relevant to them. But they soon realize that at the core of it, what all these artists were doing, whether thousands of years ago or just last week, is exactly what they're doing now: figuring out how to channel their passion and curiosity into creating something.

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Art History of the Western European Tradition is an introduction to ways of thinking about the art from that area of the world, and covers several major cultures and epochs, from ancient Greece, to the Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque periods, to the Modern and Contemporary. Through the eyes of two professors of art history with differing yet complementary approaches to understanding art, you will look at a wide variety of media, including painting, sculpture, and architecture, and discover the diversity of ways that works of art are meaningful to the human experience. Each lesson is broken down into sections that will explore a different angle of a specific period.

In the Historical Foundation section, you will explore the factual and historical foundations of the period covered. In the Art in History sections, you will explore objects from a variety of perspectives, many of which come back to ideas of time, the body, the interrelations of a variety of art forms, the various ways that works of art are experienced, and how striking patterns of evolution seem to emerge within and across distinct periods of art history. In the History in Art sections, you will examine objects and their contexts through a series of case studies, each one dedicated to a different topic relevant to the life of objects we call art. Finally, the Conversation in Art section brings course authors Ross Bresler and Anthony Scibilia together to share ideas on the topics covered in the lesson, culminating with your own opportunity to contribute your knowledge and ideas via a weekly assignment.

As Ross mentions, studying art will help you understand not just your music but also more about yourself. For Berklee students, the idea that you can learn, be inspired and horrified, or be made curious or afraid by thinking about the visual arts is an enormous gift for you not just as a musician but as a human being. Note that this course fulfills an Arts/Humanities requirement for the liberal arts portion of the bachelor of professional studies degree program.

By the end of the course, you will be able to:

  • Identify patterns of evolution associated with developments in the history of Western art, from ancient Greece to the contemporary era
  • Describe and evaluate the cultural significance of works of art and the role of the artist within their historical and contemporary contexts
  • Relate major developments and tendencies in the history of visual arts in the Western world to similar or parallel developments in music
  • Write and speak articulately and fluently about the ways in which the histories of philosophy, art, and science are intertwined, and may be creatively understood
  • Think critically about how the biographies of works of art provide powerful vehicles for understanding art's place within society over time
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Overview Syllabus Requirements Instructors
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Lesson 1: Looking at Art History: Developing a Language of Vision

  • Historical Foundations: What Is Art History?
  • What Does an Art Historian Do?
  • Art in History: Meet Anthony Scibilia
  • Introducing a "Grammar of Looking"
  • History in Art: Meet Ross Bresler
  • The Journey of the Mona Lisa
  • Assignment 1: Conversations in Art

Lesson 2: Ancient Greece, Part I: Greek Sculpture and the Invention of the Human Form

  • Historical Foundations: Greek Sculpture
  • Introducing Ancient Greek Sculpture
  • Art in History
  • The Old Market Lady
  • History in Art: The Antiquities Market
  • The Benin Bronzes
  • Assignment 2: Conversations in Art

Lesson 3: Ancient Greece, Part II: The Humanization of Greek Architecture

  • Introduction: Perspectives on Greek Architecture
  • Historical Foundations: The Parthenon
  • Optical Refinements at the Parthenon
  • The Three Orders of Greek Architecture
  • Vitruvius and Humanization of Architecture
  • The Humanization of Greek Architecture
  • Art in History: Greek Columns
  • The Erectheion
  • History in Art: The Parthenon Marbles
  • Assignment 3: Conversations in Art

Lesson 4: The Medieval Period, Part I: The Emergence of the Church

  • Introduction: The Middle Ages
  • Historical Foundations: Medieval Church Architecture
  • The Church Building as Symbol of the Godhead
  • About the Medieval Cathedral
  • The Bay System
  • Art in History: St. Cecilia's and the Bay System
  • History in Art: God in Art
  • Islam and Imagery
  • Images and Holy Books of Islam
  • Images of Mohammed and Decoration of Mosques
  • Islam and Iconoclasm
  • Assignment 4: Conversations in Art

Lesson 5: The Medieval Period, Part II: Sculpture and Painting

  • Introduction: Medieval Sculpture
  • Historical Foundations: Medieval Sculpture
  • Looking Closer at Chartes
  • Spotlight on Jamb Figures
  • Art in History: Medieval Jamb Sculpture
  • Comparing Greek and Medieval Sculpture
  • Who Made These Things?
  • History in Art: African American Artists
  • African American Artists Resource Page
  • Assignment 5: Conversations in Art

Lesson 6: The Renaissance: Perspectives on Painting and Baroque Sculpture

  • Introduction: The Renaissance
  • Historical Foundations: Renaissance
  • Advent of Perspective
  • Rhythmic and Harmonic Space
  • Perspective in Painting
  • Art in History
  • Perspectives on Sculpture
  • Historical Foundations: The High Renaissance
  • Humanism in the Renaissance
  • Sculpture: Spotlight on David
  • Art in History: Three Davids
  • Applying the Davids
  • History in Art: Ghent Altarpiece
  • Closer to Van Eyck
  • History in Art: Vandalism
  • Mary Richardson
  • The Night Watch
  • Carmen Tisch in Denver
  • Assignment 6: Conversations in Art

Lesson 7: Painting: The Reformation and a Northern Perspective and Southern Painting: The Frescoes

  • Introduction: The Reformation
  • Historical Foundations: The Reformation
  • The Artist in the Renaissance
  • A Northern Perspective
  • Art in History
  • History in Art: Forgery
  • Video: Han Van Meegeren
  • John Myatt
  • Ken Perenyi
  • Assignment 7: Conversations in Art

Lesson 8: Frescoes

  • Introduction: The Frescoes
  • Historical Foundations
  • Italian Ceiling Painting
  • Art in History
  • History in Art: Restoration
  • The Last Supper
  • Sistine Chapel
  • Cecilia Gimenez
  • Assignment 8: Conversations in Art

Lesson 9: The Baroque Era

  • Introduction: The Baroque Era
  • Historical Foundations: About the Baroque Period
  • Architecture: St. Peter's Piazza and Versailles
  • The Evolution of St. Peter's Basilica
  • The Evolution of Versailles
  • Art in History
  • History in Art: Theft
  • Assignment 9: Conversations in Art

Lesson 10: Revolution! The Birth of the Modern

  • Introduction: The Modern
  • Historical Foundations: The Modern Period
  • Realism, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism
  • The French Revolution and the Artist
  • Political Avant Garde
  • Aesthetic Avant Garde
  • The Emergence of the Artist's Hand
  • Art in History
  • To the Early Modern, in Threes
  • History in Art: World War II and Restitution
  • Art and the Second World War
  • Assignment 10: Conversations in Art

Lesson 11: 20th Century Modern, Part I

  • Introduction: 20th Century Modern
  • Historical Foundations: Cubism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art
  • A Return to Threes
  • 20th Century Art Criticism: Greenberg
  • 20th Century Modernism: From Flat to 3D
  • Art in History
  • Review
  • History in Art: Women Artists
  • Women Artists Resource Page
  • Assignment 11: Conversations in Art

Lesson 12: 20th Century Modern, Part II and Concluding Thoughts

  • Introduction: More 20th Century Modern
  • Historical Foundations: Dada, Conceptual Art, and Minimalism
  • Dada, Conceptual Art, and Minimalism, Page 2
  • Additional Objects: Warhol and Pollock
  • Preparing for Fountain
  • Art in History
  • Architecture and the International Style
  • History in Art: Science and the Art Experts
  • Conversations in Art: A Dialogue Part I
  • Art in History: A Review
  • Revisiting the Threes
  • What Is Art?
  • No Single "Correct" Interpretation
  • Assignment 12: Conversations in Art


Prerequisites and Course-Specific Requirements 

Prerequisite Courses, Knowledge, and/or Skills
This course does not have any prerequisites.


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General Course Requirements

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Ross Bresler


Ross Bresler is a professor in the liberal arts department at Berklee College of Music, where he has been teaching art history since 1998. For the past decade, he has also served as the executive director of the ProArts Consortium, a Boston-based collective of arts schools that includes Berklee College of Music, The Boston Conservatory, The Boston Architectural College, Emerson College, Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Working with painters, musicians, poets, sculptors, dancers, teachers, and designers in his ProArts role has greatly informed his teaching. Ross has always placed a strong emphasis on the historical context within which works of art were created. He is a firm believer in the idea that WE ARE WHAT WE MAKE. That is, the most powerful way to understand a culture is to look at not only the paintings and buildings that people constructed, but also at the music and poetry they composed, the literature they wrote, and the theater they performed. Ross holds a bachelor's degree from Indiana University and master's and doctorate degrees from Boston University.

Anthony Scibilia


Artist, musician, and educator Anthony Scibilia is an assistant professor in the liberal arts department at Berklee College of Music. He has been practicing photography for more than 20 years, with work appearing at the Guggenheim, Museum of Modern Art, Oxford University Press, CBS News, Zone Books, and Gardner's Art through the Ages. Anthony has played the piano for most of his life, with recordings of Bach, Schubert, and Scarlatti. He also has experience in acting, set design, and architectural design. While much of his formal training is in art and architectural history, his approach to looking at art is fundamentally shaped by his own experience of making things. According to Anthony, when we look at a work of visual art, we are, like musicians, "performing" the piece: we are experiencing it through time and space, much as we do when we perform a piece of music. We are also experiencing the work as its audience at the same time. Anthony holds a bachelor's degree from Cornell University and dual master's degrees from Columbia University. He has conducted lectures and performances at New England Conservatory, Mass College of Art and Design, Columbia University, and CUNY Graduate Center.

Erika Raberg


Erika Raberg is an artist, curator, and educator currently living and working in Chicago, IL, where she teaches in the Low-Residency MFA program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Erika has experience teaching art in a variety of different capacities; whether working on cross-cultural artistic collaborations with graduate students in Tokyo, teaching photography to students across disciplines in Chicago, or working one-on-one with practicing artists, it is always a pleasure for her to share her enthusiasm for the visual and to grow from her students in return. Erika comes from an interdisciplinary background herself, having studied American Literature and Japanese as an undergraduate, and so enjoys bringing the visual arts to life for students who might not otherwise consider it "home base." Erika earned a Masters in Fine Arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2015 and a BA in American Literature form Oberlin College in 2009, and has exhibited her own work widely in Chicago, as well as in New York, Boston, Baltimore, Stockholm, and London.

Arleen Arzigian


Arleen Arzigian is an associate professor at Berklee College of Music in the Liberal Arts Department, and has been teaching art history at Berklee since 2008. She has been a museum librarian and curator at the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Before coming to Berklee, she was Curator of Visual Resources in the History of Art and Architecture Department at Boston University. She has taught architectural history at the Boston Architectural College, and has taught at Northeastern and Tufts. She has attended many national and international conferences and presented papers on visual studies and art history at the College Art Association, Visual Resources Association, the Art Libraries Society, the Warburg Institute, the Fondazione Giorgio Cini in Venice, and the Southeast College Art Conference. She holds a bachelor’s degree in art history from Simmons College and a master’s degree in art history from Tufts University. Her exposure to works of art at the Metropolitan and Fogg art museums have informed and enhanced her teaching, as has her academic experience at Boston University.


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