How to Look at and Understand Great Art

Course No. 7640
Professor Sharon Latchaw Hirsh, Ph.D.
Rosemont College
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Course No. 7640
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Uncover the core principles of color in painting, and learn how art achieves power and meaning through color.
  • numbers Learn how symbolic associations work in art - and how they've changed over time.
  • numbers Discover why the Impressionists were so fascinated with natural light, and how this fascination appears in their work.
  • numbers Contemplate the "anti-art" movement, and consider the focus on the subconscious found in the work of the Surrealists.

Course Overview

Great art is among the most sublime, meaningful, and redeeming creations of all civilization. Few endeavors can equal the power of great artwork to capture aesthetic beauty, to move and inspire, to change your perceptions, and to communicate the nature of human experience. Great art is also complex, mysterious, and challenging. Filled with symbolism, cultural and historical references, and often visionary imagery, great artworks oblige us—defy us, even—to reckon with their many meanings.

What does it take to truly know what you're seeing when you look at art? What technical skills and knowledge are needed to comprehend the full richness of artworks, to unpack the hidden significance of master paintings, sculptures, prints, and more?

Award-winning Professor Sharon Latchaw Hirsh of Rosemont College speaks to these and other compelling questions in How to Look at and Understand Great Art. Unlike a traditional survey of art, these 36 richly illustrated lectures take you on an in-depth exploration of the practical skill of viewing art through the lenses of line, light, perspective, composition, and other crucial elements of craft and technique. Using timeless masterpieces of Western painting, sculpture, and graphic art, as well as hands-on studio demonstrations, Professor Hirsh gives you the specific visual and interpretive knowledge you need to approach great artworks, find their deeper meanings, and reach startling new levels of appreciation.

Discovering the Artist's Visual Language

In building your viewing skills, the opening lectures give you practice with the core technical tools for understanding visual art:

  • Color: You study the essential principles of color and color schemes in painting and graphic art and the distinctive use of color in different epochs, all of which are deeply integral to an artist's work.
  • Line: You investigate the artist's use of line (the basis of art) as it describes reality, conveys expressive meaning, and gives larger structural impact to an artwork.
  • Composition: You learn how the artist constructs a work's overall composition in painting, graphic art, and sculpture. You discover compositional features such as symmetry/asymmetry, balance, and the visual framing of images, as keys to an artwork's comprehensive impact.
  • Signs and symbols: You learn how to recognize symbolism and signifiers in religious paintings, "vanitas" still lifes, canvases of royalty, and seminal works by Gauguin and Dali.

Rich and Varied Genres of Art

Traveling deeply into the artist's world, you investigate the major genres of drawing, printmaking, sculpture, and painting. You apply your technical knowledge to major works in each genre, exploring the various purposes and types of drawings, the vast spectrum of sculpture and three-dimensional art, and the important traditions within painting and printmaking, with particular attention to how works of art are made.

Here, Professor Hirsh takes you out of the classroom and into the studio, in a series of hands-on demonstrations you rarely find in an academic art course. In the lectures on painting, for example, you study the techniques of fresco and panel painting, and you see oil painting demonstrated, including the mixing of colors, the application of opaque oils and translucent glazes, and the texturing techniques of impasto and scumbling used so memorably by Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and the Expressionists.

In the complex genre of printmaking, you watch a contemporary artist create original prints, showing you the methods of woodcut, copper plate engraving, etching, lithograph, and silkscreen prints. Your understanding of the techniques of printmaking helps you identify the type of print you're looking at—often tricky even for experienced eyes—and gives you an appreciation of the craft underlying master prints by Dürer, Doré, Whistler, Degas, and others.

To deepen your insight into subject matter in art, additional lectures are devoted to the importance of landscapes, portraits, and self-portraits.

Great Eras, Visionary Movements

In the course's final section, you use your newfound skills to explore the major eras and movements in Western art, from the Renaissance to the present. In this unfolding progression, you encounter the stunning diversity of artworks from the early Renaissance to the Baroque and Rococo, from 19th-century Romanticism to Impressionism, from 20th-century Expressionism to Cubism, Surrealism, and Modernism, and finally to Postmodernism and the art of our own times.

The knowledge you've developed allows you to recognize and appreciate the dramatic evolution of art, not merely in historical terms, but through specific understanding of how artists work.

In the Limbourg brothers' Hours of the Duc de Berry (15th century), for example, you see their attempt at linear and aerial perspective; later, you see how these techniques were gloriously perfected by Masaccio, Leonardo, and other Renaissance masters. You observe how the impact of El Greco's Mannerist masterpiece Pentecost rests on an anti-Renaissance elongation of figures, unusual poses, and use of tertiary colors.

Of huge value for appreciating modern and contemporary works, you delve into the human experiences and ways of thinking that gave birth to abstract and nonrepresentational art. Here, you study influences such as the three phases of Cubism, the ideas of Kandinsky, and the penetrating imagery of Franz Marc, following the bold and thoughtful moves that freed art from imitating nature. This understanding allows you to grasp the inspiration and visions of De Kooning, Miró, Giacometti, Pollock, and other masters of the modern era.

A Visually Rich Learning Experience

Drawing on works from public and private collections, this course brings masterpieces from more than 250 of the world's greatest artists together in one place—making this thrilling course a virtual museum of art you won't be able to find anywhere else. Professor Hirsh's lectures come complete with

  • more than 950 works of art, presented in crisp high-definition that allows you to zoom in and explore their tiniest details;
  • meticulously crafted 3-D animations that reconstruct particular works;
  • on-set demonstrations that explain specific painting methods and techniques; and
  • visits to an actual artist's studio where you get a first-hand look at the secrets of printmaking.

Winner of the Charles A. Dana Award for Distinguished Teaching, Professor Hirsh combines a remarkable breadth of knowledge and a gift for demystifying both the imagery and the motives of art, leaving you with lasting insight into classic masterpieces as well as challenging contemporary works.

By teaching you the artist's visual language and how to "read" it, How to Look at and Understand Great Art gives you an extraordinary key to the full, unforgettable richness of great artworks—their ability to open you up to new ways of seeing, to bring alive the majestic unfolding of history, and to reveal human experience in all its vividness, poignancy, and dynamic life.

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36 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    The Importance of First Impressions
    Examine the contexts and environments in which we encounter art and their critical effect on our viewing experience. Consider ways of displaying and framing paintings, as well as key parameters for viewing sculpture. Then, learn the predominant genres of Western art, and the artist's media, tools, and techniques. x
  • 2
    Where Am I? Point of View and Focal Point
    Explore how point of view—the artist's positioning of the viewer with respect to the image—works in painting and sculpture, paying particular attention to differences in angle and spatial relation. Then, continue with focal point, or the artist's centering of attention on a key area of the work. x
  • 3
    Color—Description, Symbol, and More
    Uncover the core principles of color in painting, including the distinctions of value and saturation and the relationship of colors as analogous or complementary. See how major works of art achieve their power and meaning through color, as seen in celebrated canvases by Seurat, Gauguin, and Van Gogh. x
  • 4
    Line—Description and Expression
    Discover the properties of line, another essential element of art, as "descriptive" (describing reality) or "expressional" (conveying feeling). Learn about the use of geometric lines, implied lines, and directional lines within a composition. Also, study the compelling, psychological use of line in Picasso's works, Seurat's The Circus, and in key Modern and Expressionist works. x
  • 5
    Space, Shape, Shade, and Shadow
    Examine geometric and "organic" shapes in painting and sculpture and the crucial relationship of figure to ground and mass to space. Then, explore the illusionistic use of shading, shadows, and overlapping shapes in Caravaggio's and Friedrich's works, and the compositional power of shapes in paintings such as Matisse's Dance and Michelangelo's Creation of Adam. x
  • 6
    Seeing the Big Picture—Composition
    Define symmetry and asymmetry in painting and sculpture, and the key effects on the viewer of each. Also, study scale and proportion of figures, and the distinction between "open" and "closed" composition, reflecting the artist's approach to visually framing the image. x
  • 7
    The Illusion—Getting the Right Perspective
    Tracking the history of illusionism in Western art, grasp the principles of linear perspective, foreshortening, and atmospheric perspective as they replicate how the human eye perceives. See how artists, including Cézanne and Van Gogh, manipulated perspective for their own creative ends, and observe the extreme illusionism of trompe l'oeil and anamorphosis. x
  • 8
    Art That Moves Us—Time and Motion
    Explore how artists evoke motion and the passage of time, including implying motion through strong directional lines and time through narrative devices. Study approaches to implied motion in Impressionism, Abstract Expressionism, and Op art, and the use of actual motion in performance art and modern sculpture. x
  • 9
    Feeling with Our Eyes—Texture and Light
    Here, consider texture in sculpture as an aid to meaning in sculptures by Rodin, Donatello, and Bernini, and the painter's use of paint as a way to capture texture and light on canvas. Then observe the virtuoso representation of texture by master painters Ingres and Titian, and the handling of light and shadow in works by Renoir and Georges de la Tour. x
  • 10
    Drawing—Dry, Liquid, and Modern Media
    In this first lecture on genre, define the various purposes of drawings, from "croquis" drawing to capture a pose or action, to successive sketches visualizing larger works, to finished drawings as a distinct art. Study the diverse media of drawing, focusing on master drawings in metalpoint, charcoal, ink, pastel, and pencil. x
  • 11
    Printmaking—Relief and Intaglio
    The medium of prints attracted great artists from Dürer and Rembrandt to Ensor and Picasso. Using studio demonstrations, study the expressive means and contrasting techniques of relief printmaking, including woodcut, wood engraving, and linocut, and intaglio printmaking, including metal engraving, etching, mezzotint, and aquatint. x
  • 12
    Modern Printmaking—Planographic
    This lecture explores the art of planographic printmaking, which allows artists to draw or paint directly on the printing surface. In detailed demonstrations and works by Daumier, Degas, and Warhol, grasp the techniques of lithography, silkscreen, and monotype, and explore the mastery of Whistler's lithograph Nocturne: The Thames at Battersea. x
  • 13
    Sculpture—Salt Cellars to Monuments
    Sculpture, as a genre, encompasses the full spectrum of three-dimensional artworks. In this lecture, investigate the varieties and viewing contexts of relief and in-the-round sculptures—from monumental public works and religious and historical subjects to assemblage, collage, found objects, and large-scale "earth art"—noting the technical distinction between subtractive and additive works. x
  • 14
    Development of Painting—Tempera and Oils
    Trace the history and technique of painting, beginning with the methodology of panel painting on wood; fresco painting, both wet and dry; and finally, oil painting and watercolor. Learn about types of oil paint, the mixing of colors, brushwork techniques, and the 19th-century phenomenon of plein air (outdoor) painting. x
  • 15
    Modern Painting—Acrylics and Assemblages
    The lecture opens with a historical panorama of painting techniques, highlighting the diverse treatment of human faces. Then, it tracks 20th-century developments in nontraditional materials and methods of application, including the techniques of Frank Stella, Helen Frankenthaler, and Jackson Pollock, as well as the contrasting strengths and mixed use of oil and acrylics. x
  • 16
    Subject Matters
    Focusing on masterworks by Van Eyck and Rubens, define three levels of iconography (subject matter). Also study the academic codifying and ranking of subject matter in art, probing subject and deeper meaning in a variety of religious and history paintings, still lifes, landscapes, portraits, and genre works. x
  • 17
    Signs—Symbols, Icons, and Indexes in Art
    The richness of signs (signifiers) in art includes the use of symbols, icons, and indexes as they reveal layers of meaning. See how, in different historical eras, symbolic associations change over time, how icons visually represent a subject, and how indexes exhibit direct connections with the thing signified. x
  • 18
    Portraits—How Artists See Others
    In examining the diverse functions and types of portraits, study the important elements of facial presentation and the subject's position and gaze with relation to the viewer and the pictorial space. See how Rembrandt added dramatic power to his group "corporation" portraits, and how David carefully rendered Napoleon in symbolic terms. x
  • 19
    Self-Portraits—How Artists See Themselves
    Across the centuries, self-portraits fascinatingly reveal the changing role of the artist. Follow this progression, from Renaissance painters subtly placing themselves within large compositions, to self-portraiture's emergence as a major form of self-revelation, noting many dramatic and colorful traditions within the form. x
  • 20
    Landscapes—Art of the Great Outdoors
    In this lecture on landscape painting, observe the classical, balanced division into foreground, middle, and background, and how Romantic painters altered these proportions to express drama, infinite space, and the sublime. Discover proportion and composition in landscapes of the Hudson River school, Luminism, Impressionism, and also the subgenres of seascapes and cityscapes. x
  • 21
    Putting It All Together
    This lecture integrates elements including color, line, shape, composition, light, symbolism, point of view, and focal point. Using the viewing tools you've developed, look deeply at four diverse masterpieces, including a sculpture by Thorvaldsen, a "vanitas" still life by Van Oosterwyck, a lithograph by Bonnard, and a painting by Van der Weyden. x
  • 22
    Early Renaissance—Humanism Emergent
    Contemplate the Renaissance phenomena of classicism and humanism in 15th-century Italian art, which focused—even in religious art—on the human body, nature, and depictions of earthly life and the individual. Learn how to recognize Early Renaissance art in characteristic subject matter and stylistic technique. x
  • 23
    Northern Renaissance—Devil in the Details
    Flanders and Germany also witnessed an explosion of art in the 15th and early 16th centuries. Define the stylistics of great Northern Renaissance oil painting, such as the use of cool light, richness of detail, and the depiction of fabric. Conclude by charting the development of the historical "canon" of universally recognized artworks. x
  • 24
    High Renaissance—Humanism Perfected
    The Italian High Renaissance saw the full flowering of humanism and classicism. With reference to the era's thought and practice, delve into masterpieces by three of history's greatest geniuses: Raphael, Leonardo, and Michelangelo. Last, explore the composition of Raphael's School of Athens as it represents the sublime embodiment of High Renaissance ideals. x
  • 25
    Mannerism and Baroque—Distortion and Drama
    Two important artistic movements followed the High Renaissance. Beginning with late Michelangelo, Tibaldi, and El Greco, explore the hallmarks of Mannerism, including deliberate distortions of proportion and perspective and use of tertiary colors. Then, in the works of Caravaggio, Rubens, and others, define the essence of Baroque art in its dramatic, exuberant expansion of classical style. x
  • 26
    Going Baroque—North versus South
    Baroque style flowered in key regional variations. See the influence of the Counter-Reformation in southern Europe in dazzling religious images intended to excite and teach. Grasp the classical ethos of French Baroque and the Dutch diversity of subject matter and dramatic use of light and space in the North. x
  • 27
    18th-Century Reality and Decorative Rococo
    The sensuality of Rococo art mirrors 18th-century upper-class lifestyle and sensibility. Explore the evocation of intimate hedonism in Watteau, Boucher, Fragonard, and other Rococo masters, specifically through their imagery of lovers, social life, and pastoral pleasure. Then, define Rococo style in its graceful curves and characteristic use of paint and color. x
  • 28
    Revolutions—Neoclassicism and Romanticism
    The early 19th century saw the emergence of two compelling and highly contrasting styles. Referencing the art of Napoleonic painter Jacques-Louis David, discover the tenets of Neoclassicism, specifically its ordered composition and emphasis on stoicism, morality, and rational control. In works by Eugène Delacroix, find the spirit of Romanticism and its concern with dramatic proportions, emotion, and spirituality. x
  • 29
    From Realism to Impressionism
    In canvases of Millet, Courbet, and Manet, observe the Realist ideals of honesty, simplicity, and descriptive colors in revealing contemporary experience. Then, explore the phenomenon of Impressionism, highlighting Renoir, Monet, and Degas—their fascination with natural light, quest to capture the moment, and iconic subject matter of middle-class leisure life. x
  • 30
    Postimpressionism—Form and Content Re-Viewed
    The term "Postimpressionism" comprises a varied and highly innovative body of art. Here, learn how Postimpressionist painters such as Cézanne and Seurat were driven by what they perceived as a loss of form in Impressionist art. See also how Symbolists Gauguin and Munch used increasing abstraction to convey deeper psychological meanings. x
  • 31
    Expressionism—Empathy and Emotion
    In defining the bold sensibility of Expressionism, explore its use of violent colors, stylistic distortions, and sculptural application of paint. Also contemplate its influences (including contemporary philosophers as well as Freud) and its goal to provoke empathy and thus touch the viewer at the innermost level. x
  • 32
    Cubism—An Experiment in Form
    Investigate the visual elements and the three phases of this hugely influential movement, based in its geometric fracturing of forms and multiple, interlocking meanings of line and shape. Find borrowings and echoes of Braque's and Picasso's Cubism in diverse 20th-century painters and experiments in Cubist-derived sculpture. x
  • 33
    Abstraction/Modernism—New Visual Language
    Abstraction and Modernism forged a daring new definition of art, breaking dramatically with the past. Discover the philosophical and experiential underpinnings of abstraction and nonrepresentational art, now radically freed from imitating nature. Encounter art's new language in visionary works by Kandinsky, Marc, Pollock, De Kooning, and others. x
  • 34
    Dada Found Objects/Surreal Doodles and Dreams
    Contemplate the "anti-art" spirit of Dadaism, its nihilistic yet humorous indictment of civilization and bizarre use of unconventional media. In the sensibility of Surrealism, observe its compelling focus on the subconscious and two substyles—dream imagery, with its juxtaposition of objects and settings, and "automatic drawing," eliciting unplanned images from the unconscious. x
  • 35
    Postmodernism—Focus on the Viewer
    In the 1960s, Pop art, Op art, and minimalism brought yet another far-reaching redefinition of art. Learn to recognize these three distinct postmodern visions, and see how they shared a common rejection of the traditional focus on the artist, aiming instead to create works that exist only for the viewer's interpretation. x
  • 36
    Your Next Museum Visit—Do It Yourself!
    The final lecture opens with a detailed and thought-provoking guide to museum-going. Consider ways of making the most of visits to permanent collections and special exhibitions in both large and small museums. Conclude with a sumptuous review involving masterworks from the many eras, movements, and schools you've looked at. x

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Your professor

Sharon Latchaw Hirsh

About Your Professor

Sharon Latchaw Hirsh, Ph.D.
Rosemont College
Dr. Sharon Latchaw Hirsh has served as president of Rosemont College since 2006. She completed her undergraduate degree in the history of art and studio art at Rosemont and earned her M.A. and Ph.D. in the history of art from the University of Pittsburgh. Professor Hirsh's awards include the Charles A. Dana Award for Distinguished Teaching, the Ganoe Award for Inspirational Teaching, and the Lindback Award for Distinguished...
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How to Look at and Understand Great Art is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 187.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent course I didn't know anything about art but was interested to learn something new. Instructor was clear and thorough and I found myself eager to learn more.
Date published: 2020-09-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Exceptional Content Exactly the in-depth content I was looking for with exceptional images and lecturer. If I don’t remember anything, I have enjoyed the wide variety of art so far.
Date published: 2020-08-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very good presentation Hopefully traveling to Rome and Florence next year. I want a more in-depth appreciation for the art. So far the lectures haven’t disappointed.
Date published: 2020-08-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent course I knew a little about art but the professor in this course takes understanding and interpreting art to a new level. She makes everything clear and easy to understand with excellent examples and explanations. You will no longer look at art the same way after taking this course.
Date published: 2020-08-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I have made hundreds of museum visits around the world and read many books about Western Art. Although this course is aimed at an absolute beginner in appreciating Western Art and enjoying visits to art museums, I was attracted to the idea that it might shake me out of my habitual ways of appreciating art in museums [extremely thorough, systematic and with a lot of historical research], and give me some new ways to think about and enjoy what I was seeing. For me, it did that very well. There are other wonderful art appreciation courses in The Teaching Company collection that do, in fact, go along more with the way I usually view art in museums. However this course focuses not on art history per se, but on the museum visitor's experience. I thought that was a very interesting, and overlooked, focus. I loved that the instructor created tools and encouraged the visitor to use them to form impressions of a work before reading the tag or catalog - since I tend to read that information first! I loved that she kept coming back to the same works used as examples in previous lectures, but this time explored a completely different aspect that made you see it with new eyes. For the first half of the lectures, I kept consulting the handbook to find out which city/museum housed each work shown - which is my usual cataloging way to look at art. But by the second half, I didn't feel the need to do this any more; I was more comfortable with forming impressions of works using her tools without feeling the need to catalog them all for myself. I watched quite a few of the lectures more than once, as she had quite a few insights that surprised me. When she got to art from the mid-20th to 21st century, the technique of coming back to works again and again from different angles really paid off for me, as it eventually created enough familiarity to let me start to open up to some appreciation I had not had before of certain types of contemporary art. The instructor did go through Western Art movements in historical context, and painting and sculpture techniques, but her focus throughout was not on memorizing or completeness. Rather, it was in helping students be active and engaged when in a museum, with tools and games that they can customize for themselves that can leave them with many "ah-ha!" moments that will enrich their experience and enjoyment of art. Well done!
Date published: 2020-07-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great explanation and selection of examples!i I enjoyed the course from the beginning through the final lesson. It was a marvelous experience of learning for which I thank the leacturer, professor Sharon Latchaw Hirsh. I had seen other courses of he kind, but this was unsurpassed in depth and length. Again, my personal gratitude to the lecturer for her charming and vivid way of explaining rather complicated topics that made studying works of art set in the course a real adventure of high aethetic pleasure! The lecturer combines both profound conceptional and practical approaches. The course immensely broadened my knowledge and provided me with useful tools of understanding the European art in general and differences of its stylistic epoques in particular.
Date published: 2020-06-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Course Years ago I took an art appreciation course and I’ve been to museums all over the world but, to be honest, I never knew what to look for ! I’ve learned so much from this course . I will never look at another work of art without using the tools, she has given. The professor is truly a gifted person and I highly recommend this course .
Date published: 2020-06-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from How to Look at and Understand Great Art I came to this course with little knowledge of art, wanting to be able to view and appreciate art with my art-loving family members. What a gift! The professor provides an engaging, well-organized, informative series. She starts with basics but moves quickly and reinforces earlier learning. She has made me interested in a subject I have always avoided. I cannot thank her enough for that.
Date published: 2020-06-10
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