Life as an Art History Student

Life as an Art History Student

Many times I get the question, What can you do with art history? So is that just basically paintings with history? Is that boring? Why do you study that? Or sometimes the blank stares, followed with, that’s nice. 

This last June I graduated with my Master’s in Modern Art History, Theory and Criticism. Now the title makes it sounds very legit and also daunting even to me two years being in the program. Some would imagine somebody like a weird librarian that likes art museums, or maybe socially awkward that likes to talk about the meaning of a single line across a canvas. I mean really what posses a person to paint a single line across a canvas and then someone to buy it for millions of dollars? I guess that is part of the fascination for me is to ask the whys.

In life there are many times we want to ask the whys but it seems that many times we do not always get the answer. With art the questions are welcome, why did the artist decide to do that? Or what makes them so famous today? Or does their work really matter? These are all questions that I think we can ask of ourselves, but with art history it allows there to be a narrative to be told, a coming together of puzzle pieces so to speak. For example, Edward Munch’s The Scream a well-known image perhaps from Home Alone’s interpretation of this iconic image.  The artist Edward Munch suffered from many life-threatening illnesses. Particularly in his childhood, he contracted tuberculosis at 13 and spent a winter in a sanatorium, in isolation, which is a common theme in his paintings [1]. Also, he experienced a lot of loss with the death of his sister and mother at a very young age [2]. Most notably, his father was a devout Christian fundamentalist that believed they were suffering under the wrath of God through the deaths of family members. This reality hung deeply in Munch’s works with religious undertones, while clearly portraying unresolved emotional trauma. Munch said,


“I was born dying, sickness, insanity and death were the dark angels standing guard at my cradle and they followed me throughout my life" [3].


This painting holds that pain of the artist. The painting itself has had its own interesting journey as it has been stolen twice with 1994 and 2004, first stolen from the National Gallery, and then later stolen in Oslo, Norway. In 1994, they put a ladder on a window, like a movie and stole the piece right off the wall. They famously left a note that said,

“Thanks for the poor security” and the painting was recovered four months later [4]. The heist in 2004, was performed in the middle of the day, when two armed gunmen came in and stole the painting off the wall. The men were later captured, but the painting still remains missing. In 2012, the pastel version of The Scream sold for $119.9 million, which was at the time the most expensive work of art to ever sell at an auction [5]. This small account of a troubled artist, filled with pain, and hurt his life would end up being a successful artist selling far beyond he could ever dream. Perhaps that is what is so rewarding in studying art history is seeing the progression beyond just failures or misconceptions in their life, it is seeing their stories in fruition and still unfolding.

Questions are welcomed, encouraged and bring new insight to artwork. So next times at a gallery or museum ask the questions and maybe you will see the hidden story of the person behind the artwork, I dare you.



[1] Ilene Skeen, [2] Edvard Munch, [3] Reinhold Heller, [4] 14 Things You Didn't Know About 'The Scream', [5] 'The Scream' Is Auctioned for Record $119.9 Million by Cara Vogel