Master's Degree

The Department of the History of Art is a vibrant centre for postgraduate students.  It offers a one-year taught postgraduate MSt degree in the History of Art and Visual Culture (MSt, ‘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.

MSt Degree in the History of Art and Visual Culture

Core Course: Theory and Methods in the History of Art

This 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 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

Applicants are asked to give a preliminary option course choice in their application, and will be asked to confirm this choice before commencing studies. Due to numbers, please be aware that it is not always possible to guarantee your first choice.  Details of the 2020-21 options are given below. 

Please note that the 2021-22 MSt options are not yet available - these will appear here on the website around mid November.  Please keep checking back.

Optional Courses for 2020-21

Expand All

Tutor: Professor Geoffrey Batchen, Professor of History of Art

Participants in this seminar class will be invited to write a version of their own history of photography. The class will begin by looking at the history of that history, and will then consider various alternatives to it. Attention will be paid to the problems of writing such a history, a quite particular challenge given the mobility and reproducibility of the photograph, and thus its reluctance to adhere to the usual art historical categories (originality, medium specificity, chronology, nationalism, biography, style, genre, and so on). Each of these ways of doing art history will nevertheless be considered, and equivalent photographic examples critically analysed. The issue of how best, or even whether, to produce global survey histories will also be discussed. Participants will be asked to write research essays that demonstrate their own approach to a particular kind of history of photography.

Tutor: Professor JP Park, June and Simon Li Associate Professor in the History of Chinese Art

Since the 18th century the binary of “East and West” has functioned as a paradigmatic cultural comparison. In many people’s minds, these constructs represent two opposite poles of human experience. Right up to the present day, some Western writers argue the uniqueness (and thus superiority) of European art, while others have advocated learning from Asian ideals. Likewise, some scholars, such as Friedrich von Schlegel, believe that Chinese is the most primitive of languages, while other scholars believe that it is the most advanced. With increasing globalization and the rise of China as a world power, the need to stretch our imaginations beyond the constraints of traditional constructs has become a serious concern for fields ranging from business and law to anthropology and social work.

One of the major goals of this course is to offer you the tools to critically examine popular accounts of China, its art and cultures. Exposure to logical, historical, artistic, and literary modes of analysis will prepare students to recognize common misconceptions and formulate questions about Chinese art and culture in more rigorous and sophisticated ways. In addition, through a careful examination of scholarly research on both Eastern and Western arts, you can acquire a fuller appreciation for the diversity of cultural expression and shared human experience. In this process, you will gain an understanding of how the field is structured and how it has grown by tracing important debates of recent years. While providing a range of topics, this course hopes to produce future scholars who are well equipped with balanced and critical perspectives.

Tutor: Emily Burns, Terra Visiting Professor of American Art 2020-2021

This Master’s course traces the history of exhibitions in spurring the circulation of arts of the United States and Native America, and analyzes the resulting aesthetic and verbal dialogues from the colonial period to the present. Exhibitions are theorized through ideas of the fragment, notions of place and public space, and the politics of display. They will be analyzed as historical objects alongside the works of art and material culture contained within them, as well as their archives. Students will consider the role of art criticism in shaping public reception of art and analyze the relationship between social discourse and aesthetics. Discussions will also explore the relationship between exhibition history and both national and international politics; what argument do these exhibitions make, for whom, and why at their respective moments? How do exhibitions connect with power through visibility? How does the display of works of art change over time, and also become part of meaning?

Case studies will be drawn from the following: Charles Willson Peale’s Museum, John Singleton Copley’s display of single large-scale history paintings in London, and the shaping of single-painting exhibitions of Hudson River School and US academic objects; exhibitions of early academic institutions in the United States, including the National Academy of Design and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; US art and material culture at World’s Fairs; the display of American Impressionism in response to Durand-Ruel’s 1886 exhibition in New York City and a related play imagined within an exhibition called “Impressions on Impressionism” (1894); the circulation of Lakota regalia through Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and how it spurred the production of non-Native regalia copies such as the Anglo-made examples in the Pitt Rivers Museum; exhibitions hosted by the US women’s artists’ clubs in Paris; the Armory Show (1913); Harmon Foundation exhibitions of African- American art (1920s/1930s); Native American Art at the Venice Biennale (1932); Advancing American Art (1946); The New American Painting (1958-1959); The West as America (1991); and most recently, Once Upon a Time in America: Three Centuries of US American Art (Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne, 2018-19) and Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment (Princeton Art Museum, 2018-19). Seminar papers, presented at the end of the semester, will delve into other key exhibitions or trace in detail the layers of meaning accrued by single objects in their exhibitionary context(s).

Optional courses running in 2019-20

Tutor: Professor Amy M. Mooney

In this course, students will investigate the role that portraits play in the formation of individual and collective identities from the early colonialist period to the twenty-first century as evident in American art and visual culture, including how these identities intersect with non-American modes of portraiture. Considering the histories of representation, students will query the ways in which the social constructs of race, gender, class, sexuality, and ethnicity determine how we look at others and ourselves. From the advertisements of enslaved portraitist Prince Demah to the picturable assurance sought by orator Frederick Douglass, and from the politics of the gaze as directed by feminist filmmaker Laura Mulvey to the demands of dignity as explored by cultural theorist Francis Fukuyama, we will study how the production, circulation and consumption of the portrait changed the nature of subjectivity. We will debate the perspectives offered by leading Americanist scholars who explore the subtle means by which artists―and subjects―convey a sense of identity and reveal historical context. Examining a wide range of topics, from early caricature and political vandalism of portraits, to mnemonic abstractions and contemporary performance art, these studies challenge our traditional assumptions about portraiture. By developing a critical consciousness of established ways of looking at pose, prop, and personae, we will gain a better understanding of how these likenesses intersect with and inform the specificity of context, generating an ever-evolving sense of individual and collective identities. Probing the diversity and complexity of portrayal, we will deepen our awareness of subjectivity and the construction of identity as it relates to the American body(ies) politic as seen through a global perspective.


Tutor: Dr John Blakinger

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. 

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.

Examples of optional courses offered in previous years

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. 


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.