Technical art history is a new discipline that focuses on the making process of art objects. The term “technical” can be applied in two ways to this study- the first, is that we study artistic techniques, trying to gain insight into the act of creation and the artist’s intentions. The second is that we use technical analysis to answer art historical questions such as author, origin, authenticity, original appearance, state of degradation, and more. Our main sources of information are the objects themselves (I specialize in paintings) but we also use historical sources, reconstructions, and the results of technical analysis.
There are currently three MA programs in the world specializing in technical art history. The program at the University of Glasgow was the first, and is a one-year program. The program at the University of Amsterdam is the first comprehensive two-year MA program in technical art history and works with the Rijksmuseum and the UvA Conservation and Restoration MA. My class of 2015-2017 was the first. There is also now a program at the University of Stockholm.
The field of Technical Art History is growing extremely quickly, with the Rijksmuseum hiring an official Technical Art Historian in 2015, multiple Technical Art History professorships being created throughout Europe, major research projects taking place at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin and Columbia University in New York, and many museums (especially the Mauritshuis and the Van Gogh here in the Netherlands) putting up technically focused exhibitions. 2015 also saw the founding of NICAS, the Netherlands Institute for Conservation, Art, and Science, whose charter is dedicated to furthering the extremely collaborative field of Technical Art History. Our study is thus a major part of a large movement and we are very happy to be at the cusp of what we hope is a new approach to art history in general.
Quotes about TAH
”It (Technical Art History) is a strange hybrid: excitingly modem in its methods and thrillingly oldfashioned in its aims. Its most important achievement is that it leads us, if we are lucky, in a direct line back to the hand of the artist… The purpose of technical art history, above all, is to re-engage us with artists and all their processes and ambitions for making art.”
- David Bomford, The Purposes of Technical Art History, ICC Bulletin 2002
“I have developed…the thesis that style and technique are inseparable and that this inquiry into cookery, this sojourn in the kitchen, would be unwarranted if it did not lead to some slightly more keen or intelligent appreciation of the finished dishes.”
- Daniel V. Thompson, The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting
"At its least imaginative, technical art history is a form of deconstruction. The work of art becomes a material text to be dismantled in isolation—human authorship denied, or at least irrelevant. But at its best—as demonstrated in these pages—it underwrites everything. It travels in a great sweep from the general to the particular—from global sources of pigment supply to the specifics of extracting dyestuffs in seventeenth century Holland, from medieval concepts of colour to vivid glimpses of nineteenth century London studios. It is impossible to understand art properly without its insights. It acknowledges—celebrates—the artist at work and the act of making.”
- David Bomford, Looking Through Paintings, 1999
“There is a story of making and meaning in every artwork, the story of the materials and techniques used by the artist, and of the artwork’s survival-more or less unharmed-through time. Technical art-historical research into the physical object and its surrounding material culture is therefore instrumental in establishing the storyline, and, aided by scientific analysis, art historical and art-technological research, the plot may be revealed.”
- Erma Hermens, “Technical Art History: The Synergy of Art, Conservation, and Science”