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Resources for Art History Writers

Locating and Engaging Credible Sources

Good writing often follows good research. Research includes locating quality sources, understanding the difference between primary and secondary sources, and using these materials to support analysis and development of an argument.

Students will be asked frequently to locate and consult “scholarly sources,” but not every introductory student has a grasp on what a credible scholarly source in art history entails. In general, credible sources are available in print and come from reputable presses, scholars, and institutions, though for some assignments different kinds of sources might be acceptable. In short, context matters when selecting and utilizing research materials. Below is an outline of some of the main kinds of sources cited in art historical writing. For additional help in locating material in art history through our library’s resources, consult the Subject Guide here:

Reference materials

This is the most basic place to find factual information about works of art or movements. Scholarly reference materials include sources like museum websites for the collection that houses a work of art, Smarthistory, and the Oxford Dictionary of Art. While these are vetted by scholars (unlike Wikipedia, which should be avoided beyond initial inquiry), they offer only a first level of scholarly engagement. These are often acceptable sources to cite in introductory classes, but should only be used as a jumping off point for more advanced research assignments.

Primary sources

These are the bread and butter of any historical discipline. Primary sources involve texts that are directly related to the historical artifact, person, or period in question. Primary sources cited frequently in art history include artists’ statements or interviews, exhibition reviews, literature or writing from the time period, letters, documents of sale or purchase, and others.

Secondary sources

Secondary sources include writings completed at a level of remove from the artwork, artist, or period in question. These provide interpretive arguments and frameworks built upon engagement with the art, relevant primary sources, theoretical constructs, and other secondary literature. In a way, your writing assignment can be considered a secondary source in process.

Acceptable places to find scholarly secondary sources include peer-reviewed journals, edited volumes, exhibition catalogs, and scholarly monographs (single-authored books). It is generally not acceptable to cite secondary sources that are just on websites (this includes even .edu pages, which are often just references for class materials, or even class projects). There are some instances where websites are credible primary or secondary sources, such as artist’s statements on their webpages and more substantial research articles through museum websites. When in doubt, consult with either your professor or a librarian.

Quick Guide to Citations for Art Historical Writing

Citing your sources is more than an application of rules or the insertion of quotes. Citation is a “social interaction” that walks a line between originality and humility within the discipline and helps you construct your argument.1 This means that citation is fundamental to art historical writing and the production of art historical knowledge.

Citation in art history is usually done with footnotes according to the Chicago Style rather than the in-text parenthetical citation frequently used in English or the sciences.2

Footnotes are sequential (1, 2, 3, 4, etc, even if you repeat a source) and should be added using the “insert footnote” button in Word, or similar function in your word processing software. The first footnote has a full citation (which is different than the bibliographic format). When you cite a source a second time, use an abbreviated citation.3

Do not simply make a small number and a list at the end. During editing and rewrites these will likely get out of order, whereas an inserted footnote will stay with that text and renumber when others are inserted or deleted.

Citation styles are informed by the writing practices of scholars and are a disciplinary decision, not just arbitrary sets of rules, signaling the discursive norms of a particular form of writing.4

In art history it is not customary to cite artworks in the text the same way as you would textual sources, but you should include the name of the artist along with the full title and date when you first mention the work.5 If you include an image, a full caption with additional information like dimensions, materials, current collection or museum, and image credits is customary.

Citations are also used differently depending on how you are engaging a particular source. Integral citations mention the name of the author in the sentence whereas non-integral citations do not. When writing an assignment where you will be engaging with different authors’ voices, you will most likely make frequent use of integral citation through paraphrasing main points. If you are only making reference to another author’s ideas or citing information gleaned from that text but not grappling with the texts or authors by name in your prose, non-integral citations would work best and not distract from your writing voice.

Direct quotes should be used sparingly, and long quotes only when the entire passage is essential and analyzed closely in your main argument. If you do need to use a long quote, it should be single-spaced in indented, per Chicago Manual of Style.

Many of these ideas are inspired by the presentations of Elizabeth Wardle at the Howe Faculty Writing Fellows meetings in the Spring 2019.

1. Ken Hyland, Disciplinary Discourses: Social Interactions in Academic Writing (University of Michigan Press, 2013), 21,

2. “The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th Edition,” The Chicago Manual of Style Online, accessed March 6, 2019,

3. “The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th Edition.” This is an example of an abbreviated citation (as is the footnote below), and other examples can be found in the Chicago Manual of Style guide.

4. Hyland, Disciplinary Discourses, 22. Art historical writing, for example, does not want to distract from the flow of the prose and description, so references are placed in footnotes. Art historical writing also often contains a wealth of information, and footnotes are a space where the author can supplement the ideas in the text without taking away from the main points in the body text.

5. In Chicago Style, it is also customary to italicize the titles of artworks, as well as books and movies.

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