Art History

Explore research tools in the field of art history

Key Concepts

When the creator of an artwork is not absolutely certain, the attribution reflects the generally agreed upon creator of the work.

A complete enumeration of items arranged systematically with descriptive detail.

The total output of an artist, her or his complete body of work.

The listing of the chain of ownership of a work of art, forming an essential part of its history. More complete definition.

Art Catalogs

An essential type of publication in the field of art and cultural heritage is the "catalog." Art catalogs are designed to thoroughly document art and cultural objects and help researchers track what artworks exists, where they currently are located, and where they've been since their creation until the current time.

They also generally provide good images of the art objects, reliable descriptive information about the objects, and basic or core secondary literature about the objects and the artists that create them. For catalogs that document a particular artist's work, they will also very often provide biographical information and timelines.

The three basic types of catalogs are described below. Each section provides tips on how best to locate these essential publications.

Find Catalogs That Document:

Catalogue Raisonné is the published catalog of an artist's entire oeuvre, or portions of it by medium or chronology. 

They are essential to find provenance, chronologies, physical descriptions, illustrations, related bibliography, and basic scholarship concerning a particular piece of art or an artist's complete body of work. They are also good sources for basic biographical information about artists and images of artwork.

To find them in Catalyst, our online catalog:

To find published and forthcoming catalogues raisonnés, whether our library has them or not, use the IFAR Catalogues Raisonnés database. If you discover a catalog that the library doesn't have, you may either request to use it via Interlibrary Services or contact the librarian who purchases materials for the library to suggest a purchase.

Museums publish essentially two types of catalogs:

Museum Collection Catalogs - document institutions' permanent collections partially or in their entirety, by providing descriptive, systematic lists of objects in an institution.

Exhibition Catalogs - document the content and themes of temporary exhibitions and serve as those exhibitions' permanent record.

What do you find in museum catalogs?

  • Provenance, physical descriptions, illustrations.
  • Related bibliography, basic scholarship about particular works of art, the history of an institution or collection.
  • Scholarly and cultural contexts surrounding artworks, artists, and institutions.

Finding each type of catalog separately in Catalyst, our online catalog, is difficult. Search in a general way that will retrieve both collection and exhibition catalogs in one search result:

Experiment! Add multiple limits to the initial search to find more specific information, such as:

The key to success using Catalyst for this purpose is creativity and flexibility!

Auction catalogs are used mostly by galleries that sell art and by museums who purchase art for their collections. They are also very useful for curators who track provenance or investigate art attributions.

Since they have limited utility for scholarship, MSEL has only limited access to auction records, including some printed and microfilm catalogs, mostly historical, from major sources:

Here's a more general list of auction-related catalogs.

Articles in journals and trade publications may have some auction information. You may wish to search Art Full Text to see if articles have been published on the object you're researching.