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How to Look at and Understand Great Art

Featuring masterpieces from 250+ of the world's greatest artists, this in-depth guide to the practical skill of viewing art will help you reach new levels of appreciation.
How to Look at and Understand Great Art is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 218.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very Fine I have attempted to understand art by either reading or just looking, a very inefficient way to do that! I have 4 college degrees, but no art, so (at age 77) I thought it was about time to learn this. I found the course to be wonderful: clear, interesting, with ample examples and good insights. The course led me to fall in love with certain works and I have already purchased a reproduction of one (Monk by the Sea, Friedrich). (Another is the Burghers of Calais, so I will content myself by looking at it on the internet!) Dr. Hirsch is a fine teacher and an intelligent observer and student of her subject. Thank you for this opportunity.
Date published: 2022-01-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great instructor! I'm very happy I purchased this course. The instructor, Dr Hirsh, is absolutely perfect and very informative.
Date published: 2022-01-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Art appreciation for practical people I *LOVED* this course! I am a scientist by training and, therefore, very practical in my approach to everything. It is partially why I have found it so difficult to engage with art history in the past - as it is usually presented in a very non-practical way. This course was different. Right from the first lecture, the presenter gives you practical tools you can use when standing before any work of art. This is exactly the approach I was looking for! The content was very engaging (despite the lecture format) and, even for works of art that did not appeal to me, I was interested in what the lecturer had to say. I think a good selection of artworks were used to illustrate the different points, and I appreciated being introduced to several new artists that immediately appealed to me. If you have struggled to find a way into art previously, I can highly recommend this course. Armed with my newfound knowledge - I'm super keen to do deeper dives into my favourite periods - thank you for opening the door for me!
Date published: 2021-12-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Understanding Great Art This offering presents understanding art in breadth of view, manufacture, history, and description of what a specific style is attempting to accomplish. The Guidebook is impressive, with references and reading recommendations; a caveat being that the web production is old, without chapter and web links and Amazon links found in newer courses. Having been a professor myself, I really appreciate a presenter who is conversational, that engages as a friend who may care what you think. I discovered myself that people who care really find out more that way. I find some reviewers objections to the use of conversational English phonemes and patois, as opposed to the French or Italian academy dictates, silly and counterproductive (to the goal of engaging). I agree with other reviewers that the project to present all of art in terms of viewer tools, all styles from sculpture to prints to canvas, and historically placed, was incredibly brave; and this offering pulls that off. The 36 topics feel more like workshops or hands-on labs than lectures. I appreciated the improved detail beyond the usual "Classic, Romantic, Modern" division. The historical backdrop, like "who was commissioning" the great artists and artworks, and the relevance of the historic timeframe, is interleaved. My feeling is that understanding how to look at "great art" (Chapters 1-10 here) is a great start in understanding why some digital media are easy to deal with, or not. A caveat to the breadth has to do with the "art" (or not) that we must deal with every day. Web sites, mobile apps (iPhone, iPad, Win10/11, etc). How do we appreciate a great (maybe compelling) digital work? How do they change the art appreciation everyday game? In any case, this offering is a brave, impressive springboard to understanding the beauty that can be found in art museums and public places, and that we deal with in our current digital appliances.
Date published: 2021-12-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from How to Look at and Understand Great Art Excellent course. I learned so much and will take it again because it is so informative. I totally recommend it.
Date published: 2021-10-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A wonderful introduction to "reading" art! Enjoying immensely this course! I have had the opportunity to visit many of the great museums here and abroad and it's always been a wonderful experience, but now I can revisit them in my memory castle with renewed appreciation with the techniques and tools. Well done Prof. Hirsh...well done indeed!...(and Great Courses!)
Date published: 2021-10-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Brave Outing Yes, Professor Hirsh was brave to tackle this project. I say this because the traditional art course will follow a more familiar, rigorous chronological path. This path will also chart the history of stylistic periods, parallel political and social history and the personal stories of the artists under study. While I was tempted to compare directly Professor Hirsh's course with other extraordinary art courses from TGC, I realized this would be a mistake. Professor Hirsh was brave because she struck out on her own to help give the student a toolbox that would open up the world of art that might otherwise be more difficult for a relative newcomer to capture and relish. While I personally prefer the more traditional approaches of Kloss, Brettell and Soltis, Professor Hirsh merits a high rating because she comes at it in such a way as to provide the grammar and vocabulary, so to speak, for a new audience to view and really "get" a piece of art. In doing so, she risks being didactic and that happens a bit. Also, the approach seems to drift from exploring techniques irrespective of time period to later shifting to a more traditional period treatment. Finally, I am not convinced that twenty-four lectures might not have done the job every bit as well. From a production point of view, get rid of the lectern. It was there only for Professor Hirsh to emerge from as each lecture begins, never to be used again.
Date published: 2021-09-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Best Class Ever! This truly was the best class I've ever taken. It begins with lessons explaining very clearly how to understand works of art in general. Then, with that knowledge, the professor guides you through specific art periods, from the Renaissance through to Minimalism. She explains how to recognize the hallmarks of the different periods and what tools to use to understand the art. Sharon Latchaw Hirsh is interesting and easy to follow. She gives enough detail to teach the topic without having the student lose interest. I'm looking forward to my next museum visit!
Date published: 2021-09-15
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The 36 richly illustrated lectures of How to Look at and Understand Great Art 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. Using timeless masterpieces of Western art as well as hands-on studio demonstrations, Professor Sharon Latchaw Hirsh gives you the specific visual and interpretive knowledge you need to enhance your appreciation of great art.


Sharon Latchaw Hirsh
Sharon Latchaw Hirsh

At Rosemont College we seek 'joy in the pursuit of knowledge.' I believe learning new ideas, or realizing something on your own brings joy. I create my lectures to stimulate this experience by making them as enjoyable as possible.


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 Teaching from Dickinson College. She served as a senior fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and as a visiting scholar at the University of Colorado, the Swiss Institute for Art Research, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

By This Professor

How to Look at and Understand Great Art
How to Look at and Understand Great Art


The Importance of First Impressions

01: 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....

34 min
Where Am I? Point of View and Focal Point

02: 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....

30 min
Color-Description, Symbol, and More

03: 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....

29 min
Line-Description and Expression

04: 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....

30 min
Space, Shape, Shade, and Shadow

05: 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....

30 min
Seeing the Big Picture-Composition

06: 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....

30 min
The Illusion-Getting the Right Perspective

07: 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 Cezanne and Van Gogh, manipulated perspective for their own creative ends, and observe the extreme illusionism of trompe l'oeil and anamorphosis....

29 min
Art That Moves Us-Time and Motion

08: 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....

29 min
Feeling with Our Eyes-Texture and Light

09: 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....

29 min
Drawing-Dry, Liquid, and Modern Media

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....

31 min
Printmaking-Relief and Intaglio

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....

33 min
Modern Printmaking-Planographic

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....

29 min
Sculpture-Salt Cellars to Monuments

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 work...

31 min
Development of Painting-Tempera and Oils

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....

29 min
Modern Painting-Acrylics and Assemblages

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....

31 min
Subject Matters

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....

30 min
Signs-Symbols, Icons, and Indexes in Art

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....

32 min
Portraits-How Artists See Others

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....

32 min
Self-Portraits-How Artists See Themselves

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....

31 min
Landscapes-Art of the Great Outdoors

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....

32 min
Putting It All Together

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....

31 min
Early Renaissance-Humanism Emergent

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....

28 min
Northern Renaissance-Devil in the Details

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....

31 min
High Renaissance-Humanism Perfected

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....

31 min
Mannerism and Baroque-Distortion and Drama

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....

31 min
Going Baroque-North versus South

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....

31 min
18th-Century Reality and Decorative Rococo

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....

29 min
Revolutions-Neoclassicism and Romanticism

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, emo...

32 min
From Realism to Impressionism

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....

32 min
Postimpressionism-Form and Content Re-Viewed

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 Cezanne 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....

31 min
Expressionism-Empathy and Emotion

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....

32 min
Cubism-An Experiment in Form

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....

30 min
Abstraction/Modernism-New Visual Language

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....

31 min
Dada Found Objects/Surreal Doodles and Dreams

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....

31 min
Postmodernism-Focus on the Viewer

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....

29 min
Your Next Museum Visit-Do It Yourself!

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....

34 min