Art
10 Art History Classes You Can Take Online (for Free)

Missing your days as an art history undergraduate? Or never had those days at all? Here’s your chance to go back to school, sans the price tag. (You can still wear your pajamas to class, though.) These 10 online courses—which primarily focus on the Western world—range from foundational to niche: Beginners can trace the development of art from cavemen to Alexander Calder, while more seasoned students can delve into fashion design or activist art.


Ways of Seeing with art critic John Berger

Best for:

Art historians with a contrarian streak. One critic dubbed this four-part BBC series “Mao’s Little Red Book for a generation of art students,” and its opening shot reflects that revolutionary attitude—in it, art historian Berger takes a box cutter to a reproduction of Sandro Botticelli’s Venus and Mars (c. 1485). Of course, some of the shock value has faded since it was filmed in 1972 (an episode unpacking the ways European artists represented female nudes is today a commonly discussed topic with a designated term: the “male gaze”), but the series still offers a valuable primer in how to look at art—and, more broadly, the myriad images we encounter each day in advertisements and on TV.

What you get:

Four 30-minute episodes, all available on YouTube. For further reading, there’s a book born out of the series (also titled Ways of Seeing and published in 1972) that’s become a staple of art history classrooms around the world.  


History of Western Art and Civilization: Prehistory through the Middle Ages with Beth Harris and Steven Zucker of Smarthistory

Best for:

The (motivated) beginner. Smarthistory describes itself as an “open textbook” that offers students a thorough introduction to art history using contributions from more than 200 scholars. This particular course offers a no-frills approach—learners are guided by a 16-page, heavily linked syllabus. And once you’ve completed the first course, Smarthistory has compiled two additional syllabi (“History of Western Art: Late Gothic to Neoclassicism” and “Modern Art in Europe and North America”) that whisk learners through centuries, concluding in the 1960s with Pop Art.

What you get:

A comprehensive syllabus that links out to videos and articles for each subject.


Modern Art & Ideas with Lisa Mazzola of MoMA’s Department of Education

Best for:

Anyone wondering about the difference between modern and contemporary art. And who better to explain it than the Museum of Modern Art itself? Mazzola guides learners through four major themes—Places & Spaces, Art & Identity, Transforming Everyday Objects, and Art & Society—using works from the museum’s collection to highlight how art has evolved over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries.

What you get:

Five-week course with two hours of video lectures, readings, and assessments per week. Like many Coursera offerings, it’s free—unless you want a course certificate, in which case there is a fee.


European Paintings: From Leonardo to Rembrandt to Goya with Alejandro Vergara and Jennifer Calles, both of Universidad Carlos III de Madrid

Best for:

Enhancing your stroll through the Louvre. This course discusses the most famous European painters and paintings between the 15th and 19th centuries, from Leonardo da Vinci to Johannes Vermeer to Francisco de Goya. The lectures come in digestible, 8- to 10-minute portions that offer both a biographical look at the artist and a framework for critically examining their works.

What you get:

Nine-week course with three hours of video lectures and quizzes per week. This course is archived, so students can no longer receive a verification certificate.


Seeing Through Photographs with Sarah Meister of MoMA’s Department of Photography

Best for:

When Instagram isn’t enough. Between social media, newspapers and magazines, and even television, we’re constantly inundated with photographs. This course aims to give learners the tools to understand them, whether they’re displayed in a museum or not. Topics range from classic examples of documentary photography (including Dorothea Lange’s 1936 Migrant Mother) to more contemporary projects (like Nicholas Nixon’s four-decade series of portraits of the Brown sisters).  

What you get:

Six-week course with one to two hours of video lectures, readings, and graded assignments per week.

Best for:

An in-depth look at a particular type of painting. Using 11 works from Yale’s collection—from Peter Paul Rubens’s Hero and Leander (ca. 1604) to Anselm Kiefer’s Die Ungeborenen (The Unborn) (2001)—Walsh examines the history of history paintings. The category, which encompasses subjects from the bible, ancient Greek and Roman history, or even more recent battle scenes, first appeared in the Renaissance. This series of lectures traces the tradition through the 19th century, when it fell out of fashion, all the way to the 21st, where it reemerged with the help of artists such as Keifer.

What you get:

Twelve recorded video lectures, each accompanied by a list of recommended readings on both the artist and the painting’s subject.


Fashion as Design with Paola Antonelli, Michelle Millar Fisher, and Stephanie Kramer, all of MoMA’s Department of Architecture & Design

Best for:

Those wondering why we wear what we wear. Led by MoMA’s pioneering senior design curator Antonelli (who’s overseen the museum’s acquisition of a Boeing 747 and the @ symbol), this course focuses on a selection of about 70 accessories and garments from around the world, from 3D-printed dresses to kente cloth. One section focuses on silhouettes—how clothes play a part in the evolution of body ideals across different cultures. Another examines the planned obsolescence of today’s fast-fashion brands, and what happens to clothes when they’re discarded.

What you get:

Seven-week course featuring two to three hours of video lectures, readings, and assessments per week.


Roman Art and Archaeology with David Soren of the University of Arizona

Best for:

Art historians with a particular penchant for the history part. What we know about ancient Rome is inextricably tied to the architecture and art objects that still exist today. Using works that range from Pompeii’s Alexander Mosaic (c. 100 B.C.) to the Pantheon itself, this class traces the rise and fall of one of the world’s great civilizations.

What you get:

Six-week course with video lectures, readings, and graded assignments.


ART of the MOOC: Activism and Social Movements with Nato Thompson of Creative Time and Pedro Lasch of Duke University

Best for:

Figuring out how art can change the world. Even the course format itself (MOOC, short for “massive open online course”) will be interrogated as a method for making art. This course examines social movements and protests the world over—including AIDS activism, Occupy, museum boycotts, and the Arab Spring—not for their political achievements, but for how they’ve influenced artists and other cultural producers. Guest lecturers include Gulf Labor Artist Coalition, Hans Haacke, and Sharon Hayes.

What you get:

Seven-week course with video lectures, readings, and graded assignments.


In the Studio: Postwar Abstract Painting with Corey D’Augustine of MoMA’s Department of Education

Best for:

AbEx aficionados. Using studio demonstrations and gallery walkthroughs, this class examines the techniques, materials, and mindset of seven major abstract painters working in New York in the decades following World War II. Each week focuses on a different artist: Willem de Kooning, Yayoi Kusama, Agnes Martin, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Ad Reinhardt, and Mark Rothko.

What you get:

Eight-week course, with one to two hours of readings, video lectures, and graded assignments per week. Optional studio exercises.

Abigail Cain is an Associate Editor at Artsy.