Paris has the greatest museums in the world, and its streets have long been inhabited by some of the most important artists of their time. So many movements were born here, and it is here that so many masterpieces debuted.
Because of this rich tradition, Paris is deeply intertwined with the discipline of art history. This city, more than anywhere else, supports the work of art historians — with the professionals being protected and the standards of the profession being strictly maintained.
This has given rise to a country where art is seen as important, and understanding art is seen as a valuable act in and of itself. Combined with the legacy of art here, France is an art lover's paradise.
To understand how Paris became a haven for art history, we first need to understand the discipline. Then, we can look at the city and come to see why it finds this pursuit so important.
In Sorbonne university of Paris, Art history is a discipline that studies the art and architecture of cultures from all different times and places.
Now, the definition of art is always changing, and so art history has adapted to meet a broader understanding of the term. Any time a culture seems to be expressing itself through aesthetics, this will fall under something worth studying to an art historian.
To answer all the questions that come up, art history has to deal with a ton of information. A work of art, after all, can be studied from so many angles. It can be studied for its role in developing a certain style, its use of materials, its place in society, and so on.
So how are these questions answered? Art historians use the tools of the historical method. They gather evidence and place what they learn in the context of the society the art comes from.
Art history ends up giving us a new appreciation for cultures, showing us how they understand, create, and appreciate beauty. It also allows us to take in the full importance of the individual works of art themselves.
And if we look at how art history is done, we can begin using these techniques for ourselves.
For most people, the question of how to study art history is simply one of enrolling at university. And yes, many art historians do have a respected degree in their field.
And when Art historians are done hitting the books and going to lectures, it’ll be time to go into the field and actualize a research.
Biographic, critical theory, formalism, iconographic.
Of course, this is not definitive list and you can mix two to three different methodologies of Art History when reading and apprehending a complex Art piece.
The life of an artist gives us key insights into the work they create. By understanding when in a creator’s biography a certain work arose, we can figure out things like motivation and reason for choosing the materials they did. It could also tell us who commissioned a certain artwork and what their motivations might have been.
Additionally, it is interesting to focus on the artist influences: where did the artist learn a technique? Did the artist attended an exhibit of other artists? Did the artist travel somewhere? Did the artist see something that was portrayed in the art work?
Art historians sometimes use specific critical lenses to understand artwork in a way that challenges dominant narratives.
For instance, a big idea such as colonialism, or Marxism, or feminism can dominate the analysis of an artwork. The critical theorist might focus on the Art work relation to class, to power, to gender, to society.
By looking exclusively at the form of an artwork — the lines, perspectives, proportionalities, colours, textures, patterns, spaces, shapes etc. — an art historian learns a lot about the techniques used.
This information can also add to our understanding of how a certain society or individual movement chose to create art. It also allows us to make comparisons to similar artwork made at the same time.
This method focuses on the intent behind the images.
What did the artist mean for this piece to do and say?
What are the clothes, the hats, that the subjects are wearing?
What kind of objects do you see in the painting?
That requires understanding the meaning of symbols in the time and place they were used.
As we see from the list of methods above, art history shows us many ways we can look at a work. For the layperson, the key is not to get bogged down in our options. Instead, we should use anything we find helpful and not worry about the rest.
When you walk through an art museum and come across a painting you love, art history gives us an immediate set of questions we can ask to bring us closer to the work.
Who made the work of art? How did their society affect the process? What materials and forms is the artist using to express themselves? Do the images, when seen as the artist would understand them, form a coherent meaning? If so, what?
The above questions are not exhaustive, but they can get you started. You might also notice each one touches on a method we described above. So while the description of a method might seem abstract, the actual use of them can often be very sensible and direct.
Art history reminds us that we can get more out of artwork when we ask it questions. Passively viewing art, especially when we are separated from its creation in time and space, won’t allow us to really see it. The discipline gives us a reminder to engage ourselves fully in a work of art no matter where or when it was made. And when we do, we get so much more out of the experience.
This is all very valuable for the layperson to take with them the next time they visit a gallery or museum. But how do art historians answer the above questions for themselves?
Fundamentally, an art historian researches a section of history around a work of art, artist, or movement and shares what they learn with others.
This can take the form of drawing upon primary and secondary sources, as well as material evidence. As with any other historian, sharing your findings means being able to point to valid sources for the claims that you make.
The need for a depth of information around any subject means most art historians focus on a particular place and time, if not a specific artist. From a distance, this might seem absurd. But when you consider the sheer volume of information that you need to command to do this work, it becomes clear why so many choose to hyper-specialize.
Art historians are celebrated more in France than perhaps anywhere else in the world. It is here that the government takes great care in preserving the standards of the profession, and they even provide assistance to art historians when they are out of work.
The commitment to art history pays back many times over in a city like Paris. Here, the avenues and cafes are all teeming with major moments in the development of Western art. With so many important places to preserve, it’s vital that art historians are here to identify the cultural gifts we walk among every day.
There is also strong institutional support for art history. With major museums like the Louvre, art historians have a lot of resources to pursue their studies — not to mention access to plenty of important artwork. There are also internationally renowned universities that teach art history at the highest level. The Sorbonne is one such institution, offering a prestigious Art History major.
An art museum tour guide provides the most public form of art history. And in Paris, the government steps in to ensure that the quality remains high.
If you want to be a tour guide in the national museums in Paris, like the Louvre or Versailles, you need to obtain a license from the Ministry of Culture.
This license gives you multiple benefits. The first is obvious: you can be paid to view the masterpieces while sharing their riveting histories with visitors. You also have free admission to museums throughout France and many across Europe.
Getting a license begins with training, which lasts an entire year. This involves a rapid education in both the art history of the city and the practicalities of running a tour.
At the end of the training is an exam and interview. But it isn’t as simple as passing these exams. There is a strict limit on how many new certifications are given out in a year, making these licenses coveted items.
There are few studies as deeply human as art history. The discipline brings together an enormous array of considerations — from ideas about beauty to the data of archaeology to the models of sociology and beyond.
It is in Paris that this noble pursuit finds its highest expression. The honour placed on it means that art historians are able to discover more and share more. That makes art all the more accessible and enjoyable, and what could be better than that?
History is viewed by many as the source where one can get answers about the where the when and the what. Naturally, under this spectrum, the study of history seems more like a nostalgic, yet meaningless trip to the past, detached from the present.
Anyone who studied history can understand that, in this case, questions like how and why are more intriguing and important than the dry memorization of dates, locations and events.
This study can be a useful tool for anyone interested in developing their soft skills from empathy and cultural awareness to active citizenship and the moral understanding of our reality.
On top of that, the exposure to the ways that societies were established, functioned and collapsed can kickstart a reflection on the context and the causes of contemporary events.
It would not be an exaggeration to claim that being aware of our past can potentially shape our future or, in the massively-quoted words by philosopher George Santayana “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.
History should not be perceived as a theoretical contemplation, rather than a discipline, through which we can build knowledge of events and trends of the past and, at the same time, comprehend and appreciate more profoundly the current reality.
The case of Paris is particularly interesting, a city that evolved from a fishermen’s village to an international capital, a cultural center and one of the most famous tourist destinations worldwide.
The history of the city dates as back as 259 BC, when a celtic tribe, known as Parisii, settled near Seine, a river still running through the city web. From that point on, Paris gradually started playing a major role in the political and economic scene of Europe.
At the same time, in the 12th century, the first university of the city was established by the chaplain Robert de Sorbon, whose name, later on, was attributed to the institution, which is currently known as the Sorbonne University.
In the centuries to follow, Paris was under a turbulent status between short-term peace and continuous war, while in the 14th century Paris being the biggest city in Europe at that time suffered immense consequences due to the Bubonic plague.
Nonetheless, the French Monarchs never stopped being in the center of the socio-political developments of the time and, thus, the power of royalty grew stronger decade by decade. 1000 years of monarchy shaped Paris and France and some of its most emblematic cultural and religious monuments, as well as infrastructure and facilities, were constructed over this period.
On the other hand, the ever-growing empowerment of the royalty polarized the already poverty-stricken population. On 14 July 1789, the people of Paris, in a symbolic move against the royal authority, stormed the Bastille, a building which no longer exists, even though in the location of the former prison, now lies La Place de la Bastille.
Only some months later, the first written Constitution was formed and approved by King Louis XVI himself. However, the erroneous ambience of the city resulted in more attacks on public buildings, such as the Palais Bourdon and the Palais Tuileries, which no longer exists.
The rise of Napoleon and the wars that followed played a key role in the urban development of Paris. In more detail, Napoleon, alongside Baron Haussmann, aimed to the creation of a new image for the city, through the demolition of its fortification, the expansion of the metropolitan territory and the re-building of the center. Some of the most famous constructions of that time are the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, the column in Place Vendôme and the church of La Madeleine.
In the years to follow, Paris flourished even more with the economic boost that the establishment of the Third Republic brought, after the end of Napoleon’s regime.
It was these circumstances that led to the construction of the Eiffel Tower, which ended up becoming a symbol of Paris not only inside France but worldwide.
Modern Paris underwent a long period of reconstruction due to the destruction of many regions related to the First and the Second World Wars.
The Nazi occupation lasted for 4 years and the city was finally freed on August 25th by the French 2nd Armored Division and the U.S. 4th Infantry Division. At the same time the construction of monuments commemorating the losses for France, such as the Mémorial de la France combattante.
The importance of Paris, though, should not only be perceived on a political level. Some of the world’s most significant artworks can be found in Parisian museums from Michelangelo and Da Vinci to Van Gogh and Picasso.
At the same time, the intellectual elite of France, including philosophers and authors such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot and Montesquieu fostered the Enlightenment, thus, creating the basis and the theoretical context for the French population to, at first, realize and, afterwards, fight for socio-economic equality. This was the intellectual context, inside which the ideas for Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, were born and, subsequently, led to the Revolution and the decline of the French Monarchy.
The contribution of the Enlightenment, on the one hand, and the Frech Revolution, on the other, is inextricably connected to the birth of the Nation-States, since they inspired the masses and promoted the idea that nations should fight for their independence.
Only a few years earlier, the same ideas were spread on the other side of the ocean. It has been claimed that the American Revolution (1765-1783) and, specifically, the victory of the Americans over the British could have been a catalyst in the process, which led to the French Revolution some years later.
In other words, one could argue that the first set the stage for the effective uprising of the French, especially taking into account a series of common motives in both cases, such as the financial decay, the authority of the Monarchs and, most importantly, the societal inequality. The Enlightenment Philosophy was a major influence in both uprisings and resulted in the rise of awareness among people from both sides of the ocean.
Under this spectrum, one could argue that, even though the ideas of the Enlightenment were born in Europe, they were later on promoted and flowed to the North American continent, sparking a revolution, which, subsequently, enhanced the enlightened thought all the more popular and vigorous back across the Atlantic.
In our days, the history of Paris can be accessed not only through books but more vividly through walking all across the city’s old and new neighborhoods.
It is true that we are Parisienne tour guides and we would be inclined to say that Paris is, of course, one of the best places to learn about Western History, but it is only natural that a city over 2.000 years old radiates a palpable feeling of history all around it, that explain so much of what's happening today in the World.
From churches, universities and museums to commemorative monuments and luxurious royal palaces, Paris is full of enchanting constructions revealing the city’s rich past.
If you want to dig deep into the Art history, western History and our common cultural heritage that you can find in Paris, consider signing up for a walking tour with a local Parisian guide with an emphasis on both well-known landmarks and hidden spots.
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