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Free Art History Courses

The department of Art History at the Open University has always been dedicated to widening participation in the discipline. We believe by offering a range of free courses on Art History, all types of learners gain access to understanding art and its histories, as well as the visual world around them. From Renaissance Venice to Dutch painting to the Enlightenment to graffiti, it’s all here, so take a look! It’s free!

Making sense of art history

You can prepare for this free course, Making sense of art history, by looking around you. It's likely that wherever you are you'll be able to see some images. It's also likely that many of these will be intended to have some sort of effect on you. In the course itself you will be exploring the power of images via a study of contemporary art from the 1980s onwards. Taking the time to look beyond the immediate appearance of an art work to consider what the artist might be trying to say can be immensely rewarding.

Course learning outcomes

After studying this course, you should be able to:

  • identify the effects of art works
  • understand a range of artistic techniques, such as the use of colour, composition and medium
  • recognise the relationship between effects and techniques in a range of art works
  • understand some of the factors involved in interpreting meaning
  • understand the significance of context in informing the interpretation of art works.

Art in Renaissance Venice

This free course, Art in Renaissance Venice, considers the art of Renaissance Venice and how such art was determined in many ways by the city's geographical location and ethnically diverse population. Studying Venice and its art offers a challenge to the conventional notion of Renaissance art as an entirely Italian phenomenon.

Course learning outcomes

After studying this course, you should be able to:

  • be aware of the art and culture of fifteenth-century Venice
  • be aware of the nature of cultural exchange in Renaissance Europe
  • understand how Venetian art challenges the canonical view of Renaissance art as a purely western European phenomenon
  • start to develop skills in critical visual analysis based on the study of selected images of Renaissance art
  • understand the geographical, political and commercial forces that set Venice at the centre of a broad network of trade and power relations and the complex ways these were reflected in Venetian art and architecture.

Dutch painting of the Golden Age

Seventeenth-century Dutch painting stands out from other art of the same period and even more so from that of previous centuries on account of its apparently ‘everyday’ character. Works by artists such as Johannes Vermeer, Pieter de Hooch and Jacob van Ruisdael seem to offer a faithful picture of life in the Netherlands at the time. In studying this free course, Dutch painting of the Golden Age, you will discover that there is much more to Dutch painting than meets the eye. You will explore scholarly debates about the possible meanings that might be attributed to this type of picture and learn how the very idea of ‘realism’ in art has been challenged in recent times.

Course learning outcomes

After studying this course, you should be able to:

  • explore recent debates around the interpretation of seventeenth-century Dutch painting
  • consider the strengths and limitations of iconology as an art-historical approach
  • examine the notion of ‘realism’ as applied to works of art
  • address the relevance of social and cultural context for interpreting works of art
  • analyse works of art in terms of different ideas and approaches.

Goya

What influenced Goya? Did Napoleon's invasion of Spain alter the course of Goya's career? This free course will guide you through the works of Goya and the influences of the times in which he lived. Anyone with a desire to look for the influences behind a work of art will benefit from studying this course.

Course learning outcomes

After studying this course, you should be able to:

  • recognise what influenced Goya
  • understand the relationship between Napolean and Goya
  • feel more confident as an independent learner.

Delacroix

In this free course, Delacroix, you will be introduced to a variety of Delacroix's work and will see how his paintings relate to the cultural transition from Enlightenment to Romanticism. You will study Delacroix's early career, his classical background, the development of Romantic ideas and their incorporation into his work. You will have the opportunity to study some of his most important paintings and compare them to works favouring a Neoclassical approach. You will also be able to see how his themes, subjects and style were influenced by Romantic ideas, the exotic and the Oriental. Through this you will develop an understanding of the classicRomantic balance that shows how his work was influenced by cultural change of that period and to some extent contributed to the progression from Enlightenment to Romanticism.

Course learning outcomes

After studying this course, you should be able to:

  • identify those aspects of Delacroix’s art that qualify it as ‘Romantic’
  • understand the interplay between classicism and Romanticism in Delacroix’s art
  • appreciate the nature of Delacroix’s fascination with the Oriental and the exotic even before he visited Morocco.

The Enlightenment

The free course will examine the Enlightenment. To help understand the nature and scale of the cultural changes of the time, we offer a 'map' of the conceptual territory and the intellectual and cultural climate. We will examine the impact of Enlightenment on a variety of areas including science, religion, the classics, art and nature. Finally, we will examine the forces of change which led from Enlightenment to Romanticism.

Course learning outcomes

After studying this course, you should be able to:

  • understand the cultural climate that existed as the Enlightenment began
  • understand the main characteristics of the Enlightenment
  • demonstrate an awareness of the cultural shifts and trends leading from Enlightenment to Romanticism.

French Revolution

This free course provides basic historical background to the French Revolution. It will show that the Revolution accelerated intellectual, cultural and psychological change, and opened up new horizons and possibilities. In fact, while much controversy and scepticism remain as to the real extent of underlying change in the social and economic structure of France, it is generally agreed by scholars that the Revolution stimulated a widening of expectations and imaginative awareness: a belief, inherited from the Enlightenment, in the possibility of progress, as well as a conviction that state and society could be reconstituted with a view to realising social and individual aspirations and human happiness generally. As it degenerated into violence and bloodshed, however, the Revolution also provoked scepticism and pessimism about progress and human nature. The two basic types of modern political outlook, progressive and conservative, date from this experience. Which, if any, of these sets of beliefs was true is not at issue here. What matters is that the Revolution gave rise to them and gave them lasting life.

Course learning outcomes

After studying this course, you should be able to:

  • understand the main events of the French Revolution 1789–99 and its significance in the shift in European culture from Enlightenment to Romanticism
  • appreciate the French Revolution and its significance through exposure to selected contemporary texts, documents and illustrations of the period.

Napoleonic paintings

In this free course, Napoleonic paintings, we will examine a range of Napoleonic imagery by David, Gros and a number of other artists, beginning with comparatively simple single-figure portraits and moving on to elaborate narrative compositions, such as Jaffa and Eylau. In so doing, we will have three main aims: to develop your skills of visual analysis; to examine the relationship between art and politics; and to introduce you to some of the complex issues involved in interpreting works of art.

Course learning outcomes

After studying this course, you should be able to:

  • analyse paintings centred on the human figure in terms of how a work's form and content together produce its meaning
  • explain how and why French painting came to be used and controlled by the Napoleonic regime
  • discuss the problems of interpretation raised by Gros's Napoleonic paintings
  • locate Napoleonic painting within the broad shift from Neoclassicism to Romanticism in French art.

Artists and authorship: the case of Raphael

Individual artists have been the traditional focus of art history, but how do we evaluate the figure of the artist? This free course, Artists and authorship: the case of Raphael, takes the life of Raphael as a case study. You will examine sixteenth-century sources to explore the creation of artistic authorship in the early modern era. The course explores past and current approaches to the artist in terms of authorship, identity and subjectivity. You will consider issues such as the relationship between the artist's life and work, the enduring notion of 'genius' and the artist as a source of meaning.

Course learning outcomes

After studying this course, you should be able to:

  • understand how both primary and secondary sources need to be read critically to identify and evaluate arguments and approaches
  • understand and evaluate biography as a form of writing with its own traditions and conventions
  • demonstrate a critical awareness of differing approaches to art history
  • comprehend and engage with a range of ideas about selfhood and subjectivity.

Travelling Objects

Journey around the world in our interactive to discover how 'objects' aren't just merely beautiful art works but can also reveal fascinating histories and global connections.

Art and visual culture: Medieval to modern

What is art? What is visual culture? How have they changed through history? This free course, Art and visual culture: Medieval to modern, explores the fundamental issues raised by the study of western art and visual culture over the last millennium. It moves from discussing the role of the artist and the functions of art during the medieval and Renaissance periods to considering the concept and practice of art in the era of the academies, before finally addressing the question of modern art and the impact of globalisation.

Course learning outcomes

After studying this course, you should be able to:

  • understand the changing perceptions and definitions of art across history
  • understand the relationship between ‘art’ and visual culture
  • understand the global dimension of art and how it has changed over time
  • understand the significance of notions of ‘function’ and ‘autonomy’ for art history
  • understand the role of patronage, institutions and the wider historical context in shaping art.

An introduction to material culture

This free course, An introduction to material culture, introduces the study of material culture. It asks why we should study things and outlines some basic approaches to studying objects.

Course learning outcomes

After studying this course, you should be able to:

  • understand what material culture is
  • understand the origin of material culture as an area of study in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century
  • understand the concepts of 'object biography' and the 'life cycles' of things.

Visions of protest: Graffiti

This free course, Visions of protest: Graffiti, introduces students to contrasting understandings of graffiti. It draws on a wide range of graffiti examples, including mystery zebras in Hackney, fish graffiti in Morecambe, 'tags' in a Milton Keynes underpass, a McDonald's advert and exhibits at a highly established art gallery, the Tate Modern. Students will consider different arguments for and against the perception of graffiti as a form of art or as vandalism and explore how graffiti has been used as a form of communication and as an articulation of protest.

Course learning outcomes

After studying this course, you should be able to:

  • understand more clearly the complexity of the concept of ‘art’
  • explain the origins and meanings of the concept of ‘graffiti’ and distinguish between different forms of graffiti
  • have a clearer understanding of different attitudes to graffiti and different arguments used in debates related to graffiti
  • have a clearer understanding of the impact particular contexts and techniques can have on the effects and meaning of graffiti
  • have a clearer understanding of the use of graffiti as a form of communication, and in particular as a way of articulating protest.

Brighton Pavillion

In this free course, Brighton Pavilion, you will examine the Royal Pavilion at Brighton, and its relationship to nineteenth-century Romanticism and exoticism. You'll begin with a biographical discussion of the Prince of Wales, afterwards Prince Regent and eventually King George IV, to whose specifications the Pavilion was built. With the help of video and still images you will take a tour of the Pavilion, examining the exterior then a series of interior rooms as a visitor in the 1820s may have experienced them. Besides this you will look at contemporary aesthetic, cultural and political reactions to the building, its contents and its social milieu.

Musée du Louvre

The Muse du Louvre houses 35,000 works of art, including the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo, but how were they brought together as a collection? This free course examines the importance of art through history and the impact of personality and conflict.

Course learning outcomes

After studying this course, you should be able to:

  • understand how the Grand Louvre has come to be as it is
  • critically discuss the claim that the collections in the Louvre constitute a significant part of the canon of Western European art
  • ask questions of museums and collections that are appropriate to art history.