Master's Degree

The Department of the History of Art, which operates within the Faculty of History, is a vibrant centre for postgraduate students.  It offers a one-year taught postgraduate M.St. degree in the History of Art and Visual Culture.  (M.St., ‘Master of Studies’, is the distinctive name for what elsewhere is often called ‘MA’).  Students admitted to this programme do not necessarily have to have a first degree in art history, and we welcome applicants from a broad range of backgrounds.  The programme is suitable both as preparation for further research and as a postgraduate qualification in its own right.  In addition to a rigorous training in methodology, students take one two-term optional course, and research and write a 15,000 word dissertation on a topic they choose, approved and supervised by a scholar with relevant specialist expertise. 

All postgraduate students take part in the Department’s Research Seminar, and in the huge range of disciplinary and interdisciplinary seminars which make Oxford an outstandingly exciting setting for the study of History of Art.

M.St. Degree in the History of Art and Visual Culture


This M.St. core course will provide an advanced introduction to the major methodological issues and traditions of the discipline of art history through an examination of texts produced from antiquity to the present day. The course is organised around a series of 'critical terms' related to the production and reception of art. Students will discuss these terms and assigned readings in small weekly classes. The convenors also will offer a related lecture series entitled 'Art History: Concepts and Methods,' which will present the 'critical terms' in their historical and intellectual context. In lectures and classes, the convenors will consider works of art from a variety of cultures in order to demonstrate how historiographical and methodological questions are integral to the practice of art history.

Optional courses

PLEASE NOTE: 2019-20 options will be provisionally confirmed by the end of November. Please check back periodically for updates in the meantime.

Applicants are asked to give a preliminary option course choice in their application, and will be asked to confirm their choice before commencing their studies.  Due to numbers, it is not always possible to guarantee first choice.

Students will take one option from the choices below (marked as running next academic year).

Optional courses running in 2018-19

Tutor: Professor Alastair Wright

The course focuses on an issue that assumed increasing importance for French artists at the turn of the last century: namely, the question of authenticity. As the twin gold standards of naturalism and the classical ideal lost their prestige, the period bore witness to a rising scepticism about any claims art might make to speak the truth. At the same time, new criteria emerged by which a work of art might be judged to be authentic. We will examine the development of French painting between 1880 and 1912 in light of this question, focusing on the ways in which artists aligned their work with various rhetorics of authenticity, ranging from the “truth” of science to the artlessness of the “popular” and the authority of the “primitive.” Amongst other topics, we will consider: the fallout of Realism in both politics and paint; the relationship between Neo-Impressionism and technologies of vision; the oscillating interests of art in employing popular forms of image-making and the new techniques used to create these images; the role of consumerism and the changing dynamics of the art market in art’s creation; modernism’s dependence on the emergence of Empire; and the affirmation of the success of the genius-artist narrative. We will look at modernism as a combination of its many strands, ultimately assessing how the various Post-Impressionist endgames played out in the early years of the 20th century. The writings of artists and their contemporaries will be examined alongside recent art-historical work and relevant theoretical texts. The ability to read French is strongly recommended for those taking this course.​

Tutor: Dr John R. Blakinger

Since 2016, acts of resistance have exploded across the art world: artists, curators, critics, and historians have joined marches and strikes, staged protest spectacles, and organized for change in novel ways, from showcasing immigrant artists to condemning cuts to arts funding. Inspired by current events, this course explores the charged relationship between aesthetics and politics in American art. It asks: What is the role of the artist in resistance? How does visual representation ignite social, cultural, and political change? Engaging issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, and ethnicity, this course proposes resistance as the defining characteristic of what it means to be American. It examines dissent as the quintessential American value. We will first consider historical examples of resistance at the intersection of art, activism, and visual culture, including artistic responses to the American Revolution and the Civil War; modernism and the Great Depression; the exile, diaspora, and internment of artists during the Second World War; the Art Workers Coalition and antiwar agitation in the Vietnam era; critiques of racism, sexism, and structural bias in the arts; and queer activism during the culture wars. The second part of our course will consider contemporary confrontations defining American art now. We will debate the J20 Art Strike; the backlash at the Whitney Biennial; the uproar over Confederate monuments; and artistic responses to economic inequality, environmental catastrophe, and political crisis. The transnational repercussions of American resistance will also animate our conversations. This course uses art from the past to understand resistance today.

Tutor: Professor Geraldine A. Johnson

This course explores the various roles played by women in the production and reception of art and architecture in 15th-, 16th- and 17th-century Europe. After many decades of relative neglect, the significance of women’s contributions to the art and culture of Early Modern Europe has been the subject of increasing scholarly attention. Drawing on this new research, this course examines the careers of professional women artists such as Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Leyster and Lavinia Fontana. We also consider influential women patrons and collectors such as Elizabeth I, Isabella d’Este and Maria de’ Medici, as well as less well-known lay and religious women patrons. Another topic that is addressed is the representation of women, not only as sitters for full-size portraits and hand-held miniatures, but as saints and sinners, goddesses and courtesans. We look as well at women as beholders and users of art objects as, for instance, when paintings and decorated household furnishings were commissioned to be viewed and appreciated by young brides and mothers-to-be in the domestic sphere. Finally, our studies extend beyond the boundaries suggested by the course title by considering how masculinity was depicted in the Early Modern period, the role played by women in the visual culture of Early Modern China, and the afterlife of Early Modern women in everything from 19th-century painting to contemporary film.

Optional courses offered in other years:


The paper is designed to give students exposure at postgraduate level to a central issue of the visual arts in an explicitly inter-disciplinary and cross-cultural framework. It will use a series of case studies to explore a range of discourses and objects engaged with the idea of ‘the real’ or ‘the authentic’ in both images and objects. The historical and geographical contexts to be addressed will range widely, from ancient Greece and Rome, to early modern China and to contemporary art, including works seen as part of a high art canon as well as works deemed inauthentic or fraudulent: no previous exposure to these historical contexts will be assumed. The theoretical foundation of the course will be provided by a reading of the relevant work of Walter Benjamin, Baudrillard and Deleuze, but will also embrace recent writing in anthropology.

Tutor: Professor Gervase Rosser

This course addresses two problems central to the history of art: the roots of artistic invention, and the transmission of styles and techniques.  In a context in which artistic practice was dominated by training in the workshop, what was the scope for originality, and what was the catalyst of stylistic change?  These issues are brought into sharp focus by the changing visual culture of late-medieval Europe, between the twelfth and the fifteenth centuries.  The available literature on these themes is rich, yet inconsistent and inconclusive: the course addresses questions which are very much open. 

Because the Gothic style crossed freely between different media, the course will consider artistic production in a variety of contexts.  Drawing examples principally from France, Germany, Italy and England, the eight lectures and eight classes will address the following topics: (1) Making medieval art: crafts and artisans; (2) Gothic architecture: the invention of a style; (3) Manuscript illumination: workshops and methods; (4) The Gothic artist’s response to nature; (5) ‘International Gothic’: culture without borders? (6) Monumental painting: spatial illusions; (7) Visions: seeing with Gothic eyes; (8) Gothic art in changing historical perspective, from the 19th to the 21st century. 

Tutor: Professor Hanneke Grootenboer

This course explores the ways in which philosophical ideas have been reflected in the visual arts, and how, in turn, art has assisted in shaping thought. We will look at the influence of the visual arts on a wide range of writings in art theory, aesthetics and philosophy, and analyze the direct impact of art works on thinkers, or of certain ideas on artists.  In addition, we will study a series of art works that have triggered ongoing theoretical debates about issues essential to art history (such as Velázquez’s Las Meninas).  Topics range from early modern to contemporary art and include: Neo-Platonic painting, Medieval images of memory, Baroque allegory, the shadow and Enlightenment, the Romantic landscape and German aesthetics, conceptual art, affect as ‘thinking through the body’, and contemporary aesthetics and photography.  Key thinkers such as Plato, Kant, Herder, Benjamin, Merleau-Ponty, Panofsky, Deleuze, and Ranciere will provide the theoretical foundation of the discussion. 


The course explores an issue that assumed increasing importance for artists at the turn of the last century and that continues to resonate in contemporary practice: namely, the relationship between modernism and various aspects of mass culture. The first half of the course considers the development of modernist painting, photography and cinema between around 1880 and the First World War.  Works by artists ranging from Seurat and Toulouse-Lautrec to Picasso and Duchamp and by filmmakers ranging from Eisenstein and Vertov to Charlie Chaplin are examined.  The second half of the course turns to the echoes of these issues in European and American modernism from the 1960s to today, charting the emergence of Pop in the work of Rauschenberg, Johns, and Warhol; the mediation of art and life in Fluxus and Happenings; the rise of new media such as video and installation in the work of Paik, Naumann and others; and the ongoing negotiation between contemporary artistic production and the disciplines and technologies of the mass media.  The writings of artists and their contemporaries are examined alongside recent art-historical work.  The course also considers a number of theoretical texts relevant to the materials of the course.


This course considers the visual historiography of the discipline of art history. Over the past few decades, there has been increasing interest in studying the history of art history, but this has tended to focus on the discipline's textual tradition. However, it can be equally rewarding to attend to the visual history of art history, that is, to the various visual practices and reproductive technologies (from prints and plaster casts to photographs and digital images) used in art historical research, teaching and publications. The course begins by exploring a branch of film studies known as apparatus theory. We start our consideration of the apparatus of art history by examining pre-photographic strategies for disseminating information about art objects, such as prints, drawings, casts and written descriptions. We then study how photography has been implicated in the reception and interpretation of works of art. Are photographs of artworks visual documents or works of art in their own right? How have notions of artistic authorship and originality been influenced by photographic reproductions of artworks? How have developments in camera, film and printing technology affected the types of images available to art historians, and what is the impact of new media such as video and digital images? Other topics include the design of art historical publications, how images are deployed in pedagogical settings, and the display practices of museums and other public and private spaces.


Starting from Heinrich Wölfflin’s idea that vision itself has a history, and that the revelation of these visual strata must be regarded as the primary task of art history, this course examines profound historical shifts in the understanding of vision in art, philosophy and optics from the discovery of perspective to the invention of photography.  On the basis of a wide range of both early modern and contemporary theories of vision, this course focuses particularly on the ways in which images reflect on, or have contributed to, a changing understanding of perception; looking at materials ranging from (late) Medieval religious imagery to late eighteenth-century panorama painting depicting battlefields; and concentrating on visual material that somehow “does” something to the eye, in terms of satisfying, soothing or challenging it, or even confusing and deceiving it.  Readings include classical texts on perspective and vision such as Nicolas de Cusa, Alberti, Descartes, Diderot, and Berkeley, as well as on twentieth-century philosophy of perception such as Merleau-Ponty, and the much used and abused notion of the gaze as coined by the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan.

Graduate Admissions

For details about the application process please consult the graduate admissions section of the History Faculty website and the History of Art page of the online prospectus.  

It is possible to visit the Department for a short informal tour by prior arrangement (usually the first Friday of the month; please note that the Department is not open during weekends).

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