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Washington and Lee University

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About the Art History Major

The major in art history requires students to examine, both chronologically and thematically, the images and monuments that have shaped and defined a variety of cultures across a vast expanse of time. With an emphasis on honing visual, verbal, and writing skills, the art history major encourages students to form persuasive arguments based on evidence found in tangible objects, original documents, and scholarly literature. Because works of art have frequently been produced in response to specific movement, ideas, and social situations, the study of art history by definition requires an interdisciplinary engagement with the political, social, economic, religious, and philosophical traditions of a variety of cultures under consideration.

Introductory courses highlight major issues and objects that either typify periods, styles, and regions, or that have influenced the people and societies that used them during and after their creation. Upper division lecture courses focus on specific periods, geographic regions, or movements in order to gain a more complete understanding of the styles, functions, and messages of works created at particular moments in history. Seminars address topical issues that allow students to engage material that often reflects an area of faculty specialization and scholarship. Many students consider these discussion courses to be the most challenging and rewarding intellectual experiences they encounter at Washington and Lee.

The final year of an art history major’s undergraduate career is dedicated to the research and writing of an original scholarly work, the topic of which is usually chosen by the student with the assistance of a faculty advisor. This senior thesis represents the most detailed academic activity a major undertakes at Washington and Lee, and often results in extraordinarily detailed and sophisticated examinations of complicated problems. Often interdisciplinary in nature, these projects can be grounded in the study of the work of a single artist, the interests of individual patrons, or the reception and interpretation of images by audiences in discrete periods. By the end of the year, seniors come to recognize and value highly the work and the thought they have put into their projects, and often describe it as the single most valuable academic accomplishment of their lives.

Advice for First- and Second-year students considering a major in art history:

  • Complete introductory courses (100-level) before the end of your sophomore year.
  • Take as many upper division courses as possible during your second and third years. Plan to take at least three art history courses per year for most of your college career.
  • 200-level courses in Italian Renaissance Art, Colonial through Independence Art in Latin America, Nineteenth-century European and American Art, Asian Art, the History of Architecture, and Twentieth-century Western Art should be completed before the end of your third year.
  • Take at least one 300-level seminar before the end of your third year.
  • Studio courses may be taken at any time, but the earlier you take them, the better off you’ll be.
  • Work with faculty to consider topics for your senior thesis project before the end of your third year.
  • If you wish to focus your energies on art from other cultures, find ways to study abroad for as long as possible in the country or region that holds your interest. There is no substitute for seeing real images in situ, and no substitute for reading and speaking the language of those who made and saw those images when they were originally produced.

The faculty in art history urge students to take as many courses as possible in the departments of history, religion, philosophy, politics, English, literature in translation, music, and theater. Works of art reflect the culture (and, often, the controversies) of the period in which they were made; the more you know, the more you know.