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Art & Art History

Researching a Work of Art

It is fun to research works of art that are unfamiliar to you. Put on your "art historian" hat to explore what you can find about the artist, style, or any symbolism you see in the work. There are thousands of art works for which very little research exists. Too many works of art and too few art historians! Just remember, that research does not always follow an easy, straight path. You may have to dig a bit and may not find all the answers you seek.  

Important to know: Some works of art will NOT be discussed anywhere in the scholarly literature. But you can still discover a lot about a work of art by finding discussions of similar works of art in books and articles. That is part of the challenge and the mystery!

Start With a "Quick & Dirty" Search

At first glance, you might not know anything at all about your art work. You may want to do a few very generic searches to find some background information. Here are a couple of good places to look. Also, if you are in the library, you can try some of the print reference books (see box below).

Reference Books in the Library

Find Scholarly Articles & Images

Find Books Beyond FGCU

What words should I search?

Artist (if known)

If you know your artist, you are lucky! Search the artists name in the book or article search listed on this page. Find out EVERYTHING you can about your artist.  Any book or article that mentions your artist may also discuss the work you are looking for. Even if it doesn't, you will find useful information about the artist, the artist's style, the style of period, and/or works that are similar to the art work you are searching. 

Tip: Remember that there can be variant spellings of your artist's name. If you come across different spellings, write those down and search those too!

Title of work (if known)

If your work has a title (or has been assigned a title) by the museum you are lucky! Search the title. Try searching it in quotes to keep the phrase together. You may not find anything if the work is not well known. Alternative titles are common. Instead of Virgin and Child try Madonna and Child, etc. 

Material or medium

Looking for a Medieval ivory box? Use ivory in your search. For example try Medieval Ivor*. The * will bring up alternative word endings like ivory or ivories. Broad, generic terms can be useful too, especially for obscure works. Try searching for generic broad terms like "Medieval architecture" "Medieval painting" or "Medieval sculpture."  You can also get more specific, like "Medieval Cathedral" or "Medieval Tympanum" (a tympanum is a decorative wall sculpture over a door).  

City the work is currently in (or was found)

Some works are given nicknames by art historians which include the city + object type. You will come across these nicknames as you do your research, or you can create your own search string. For example if you are searching for information about a kylix (drinking cup) from the Boston Museum of art, try searching Boston Kylix. If you are searching for a sculpture or painting of the Virgin and Child from the Boston Museum of Art, try Boston Virgin and Child. If you are searching a lyre (stringed instrument) found in the city of Ur, try Ur Lyre. Ask Rachel for additional suggestions!

Museum the work is in

If your artwork is in a museum, use that museum in some of your searches. For example "Boston Museum of Fine Art" and "Madonna and Child."  Often art historians will reference the museum in discussion of their object, especially if the artist is not known.

Time period

Use search terms to indicate the time period of your piece if known. You may have to guess or ask your professor if the piece is not dated. Many art periods are not precise and have many alternative words. For example art "Medieval" can be "middle ages" or "gothic" or "early Renaissance."


People, animals, and objects in your work may have symbolic significance (iconography). As you research, you may be able to identify these objects and use these as search terms to find additional art works in which these objects appear. You can also look these art objects in dictionaries of symbolism or art dictionaries. 

Style or technique

As you find works of art that look like the work you are researching, take note of the style or technique used when creating the work. For example, some Egyptian art created under the reign of Akhenaton is classified as "Amarna Style." Artwork that features gemstones on metal and separated by metal strips is called "cloisonne." You'll come across these descriptive words during your research. Search that style or technique to find out more about how your object was created or how it characterizes that style.  

Another work of art that looks like yours

If you come across a work that looks similar to yours, search for that work of art to see if there is any research on it. If it is super-famous, you have hit the jackpot! You may have to narrow down the search if you are finding too much.  

Mining bibliographies and authors

Did you find a good relevant article or book? Check the last page of the article or book to find additional sources! These can be interlibrary loaned if not owned by the FGCU library. You may also discover that an author appears over and over in your searches. Search that author for more of their research. Many scholars become experts in a single area of art research.