How to Look at and Understand Great Art – Wondrium course review

When you are a scientist by training you tend to be very practical in your approach to everything.

This has made finding a way to engage with art history problematic for me, as most of what I’ve seen to date feels very pretentious and does not give me concrete tools to work with. It always feels like I’m back in English class thinking to myself “How do you know what the writer was thinking? This is crap”.

Until now!

I came across the Wondrium (formally The Great Courses) course: How to Look at and Understand Great Art and signed up for the 2-week free trial to give it a go. I ended up subscribing to the channel for 3 months!

The course

The course is a series of 36 x 30-minute lectures covering:

  • elements of artistic works (e.g. line, colour, perspective, texture, composition, etc)
  • artistic techniques (e.g. drawing, printmaking, oils, acrylics, etc)
  • art styles in Europe from the early renaissance (~1400s) to modern day

in both 2D artworks and sculpture.

It is taught by Dr. Sharon Latchaw Hirsh, president of Rosemont College, who is a very engaging presenter, despite the teaching approach being lectures. She does an amazing job of making you care (even about art styles that don’t appeal to you) and makes you feel as if she’s speaking to you as a friend. You genuinely feel that she wants you to enjoy the art as much as she does.

She has also crafted a free PDF accompaniment for the course that you can download for further reference.

Art history / art appreciation for practical people

The thing I love most about this course is that it is built around practical tools.

Right from the first lecture, you are given concrete elements to look for and think about when standing before a piece of art – be it a painting or sculpture.

The first 10 lessons, in particular, are super-practical and can be applied to any work of art. They focus on the basic elements of art, form the core of the entire course, and are often referred back to in later lectures.

Even when we get to the study of each of the different artistic periods, they are approached from a practical perspective. Each lecture uses several works of art to examine the characteristic features of the period and to compare and contrast them to previous periods. There’s even a pop quiz in the last lecture to see how well you can identify the different styles!

My favourite European art styles

So, after completing the course, it turns out that my favourite styles of European art are:

Northern Renaissance (~1430-1580)

While the Italian Renaissance didn’t do much for me (except the High Renaissance masters – see below), I loved the works by the artists from Flanders (Belgium), the Netherlands, Germany, etc. Aided by their mastery of oils, their realistic depictions are beautifully detailed and intricate.

Favourite artwork: the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan and Hubert Van Eyck (1432)
Other favourite artwork (which also links in with Surrealism): “Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hieronymus Bosch (1490 – 1510)

High Renaissance (1490s to 1527)

There’s no denying that Raphael, Michaelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Donatello were absolute masters of their craft. Thank you to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for teaching me who the High Renaissance masters were all those years ago (even though I didn’t know it at the time).

Favourite artwork: “School of Athens” by Raphael

Cubism (1907 – 1914)

I need to explore further to understand why this deconstructed art form appeals to me so much. Perhaps it is the 2D geometricization of 3D shapes that appeals. Perhaps it is the fact that although you can usually tell what it is, it isn’t immediately obvious and so you can cast your own interpretation on it. Stay tuned while I explore further!

Favourite artwork: The Portuguese (1911) by Georges Braque. Although Picasso is the most famous cubist artist (and I do like some of his work), I actually prefer the style of Georges Braque – who was the other key explorer of the style.

Surrealism (from the late 1910s)

As a vivid dreamer and a lover of fantasy and science fiction, I already knew that this style appealed to me. I had hoped that the course would introduce me to other works beyond Dalí and Magritte, but unfortunately not. It makes sense, of course. The course is a very basic overview and they were the 2 key artists painting in the style. I’m really looking forward to doing a much deeper dive into surrealism after this.

“Archeological Reminiscence of Millet’s Angelus” (1934) – Salvador Dalí.
This was not the work featured in the course (that was “The Persistence of Memory”) but I prefer many of Dalí’s other dream works.

The Franz Marc case study

Another of my favourite parts of the course was towards the end of it as the evolution of art periods sped up dramatically.

Here, a case study of Franz Marc’s work was presented showing how he dabbled in 4 distinct styles in the early 1900s. The subject matter was essentially the same – animals – but the pieces are vastly different,becoming more and more abstract. Note that only 3 years separated the first piece from the last.

Grazing Horses (IV) (1911)

Expressionism

Tower of the blue horses (1913)

Cubism influence

Fate of the animals (later in 1913)

Cubism and futurism influence

Fighting forms (1914)

Abstract

No surprise that my favourites are the two Cubism-influenced works, followed by the abstract piece.

Recommendation

I loved this course so much, I wrote a review on their website and I’ve watched parts of it several times. It is brilliant!

If you are like me and have struggled to find a way to study art history / art appreciation because of how it is commonly approached, I highly recommend this course. Very practical. Great presenter. Just enough to give you the basics and show you what you would be interested in learning more about.

It is the perfect introduction to art history and I’m so grateful that I found it!

Rating: 5 stars

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