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Art History

Art Search Strategies

When researching art, there are a variety of strategies you can employ to locate information. While famous works of art may have entire books about them, lesser-known works may only be found within books about a particular artist, type of work, or specialized collection. These search strategies will help you find information about art.

Be sure to pick out the main concepts of your topic and search by these (referred to as keywords), instead of a sentence or question. Keywords will typically the name of artwork, artists, time period, etc.

To keep phrases (two or more words) together, place them in quotation marks: "art history"

If you know the name of your work, you can search that as a keyword or an anywhere search in our search tools (such as the library catalog and the library databases).

To keep the name of a work together, you can use "quotation marks". If this is a popular title (such as Madonna and Child), you may wish to add your artist's name.

  • "Mona Lisa"
  • "Madonna and Child" AND Giotto

Many books will cover an artist's oeuvre or multiple works. These books can sometimes give you valuable background information about their techniques, influences, and common themes. You can search for books or articles about an artist by searching for your artist's name.

  • Michelangelo
  • Salvador Dali

You can also try searching for themes or time periods. This can be useful for lesser-know works, or for works of unknown provenance. By understanding the prevailing techniques and influences of the time, you can apply it to your work. Here are some suggested searches:

  • Art, Baroque
  • Art, Early Renaissance
  • Art, Prehistoric
  • Art, Ancient
  • Art, Medieval
  • Art, Modern
  • Art, Renaissance
  • Art, Rococo
  • Art, Victorian
  • Cave paintings
  • Mural painting and decoration, Ancient
  • Painting, Medieval
  • Painting, Renaissance
  • Sculpture, Renaissance

Finally, you may wish to search for art based on a specific country or region. This is another way to learn about artwork themes and techniques from a specific area. Some examples:

  • Egyptian art
  • Italian painting
  • American sculpture

Subjects -- A Better Way to Search

Sometimes your topic can be expressed in many different ways. Which is the right way? There are also ways that experts in a field phrase a term that are different than common usage. Using controlled vocabulary can help you retrieve better search results. This is like a hashtag for a topic, and will let you find the scholarly conversation available. By using the official terms, you will find more relevant results. 

Controlled vocabulary is frequently referred to as subjects or subject headings. You can scan library catalog and database results for sources that look relevant and see which subjects are listed.

Subjects in library catalog record

Subject Terms and People in Academic Search Complete record

Adding Keywords to Search Tools

Most of the library search tools will have two types of search screens: a basic search screen and an advanced search screen.

Basic search screens typically have one search box, and may have a drop-down box next to it. Type your keywords in the box and separate each one with the word AND. This tells the search tool to look for all these words. You may use quotation marks to keep a phrase together.

Library catalog basic search for: keyword = renaissance AND painting

If you would like to tell the search tool where to look for your search terms, change the Keyword drop-down box. Common options are title, author, and subject. When you change the box to one of these options, the search tool will only look for the words you entered in those areas. You do not need to change the drop-down box. If you do not change the drop-down box, your search terms will be looked for throughout the entire record (that is, the information describing each result). This is also how you can limit your search to subjects for better results.

Library catalog basic search for: subject heading = Painting, Renaissance

Most search tools will have an advanced search option. Advanced search has multiple search boxes, with each box having its own drop-down. This allows you to search for different keywords in different areas. For instance, you can search for one of your keywords in the title and another in the author field. Many of the library databases have the advanced search as the default.

Academic Search Complete advanced search for: sfumato AND renaissance

You do not have to fill each search box, and you do not need to change each drop-down. If you do not change the drop-down box, your search terms will be looked for throughout the entire record (that is, the information describing each result).

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