MSt in History of Art and Visual Culture

The Department of the History of Art is a vibrant centre for postgraduate students, and offers a one-year taught postgraduate MSt degree in the History of Art and Visual Culture (MSt, ‘Master of Studies’, is the distinctive name for what elsewhere is often called ‘MA’). Students admitted to this programme do not necessarily have to have a first degree in art history, and a broad range of applicants are welcomed. The programme is suitable both as preparation for further research and as a postgraduate qualification in its own right. In addition to a rigorous training in methodology, students take one two-term optional course, and research and write a 15,000 word dissertation on a topic they choose, approved and supervised by a scholar with relevant specialist expertise. All postgraduate students take part in the Department’s Research Seminars, and in the huge range of disciplinary and interdisciplinary seminars which make Oxford an outstandingly exciting setting for the study of History of Art.

Core Course: Issues in Art History

This MSt core course provides a theoretical and methodological interrogation of the practice of art history. It aims to address the major challenges and issues that face all art historians today, no matter what their field. The course is motivated by a single key question: what needs to be done to turn art history into a discourse that can address the most pressing issues of our time? Structured by ten two-hour seminars, the course focuses on a selection of art historical texts that are pushing the field in new directions or have opened up new possibilities for art history. It will be taken for granted in this course that art history is a mode of argument and persuasion, rather than a search for an absolute truth. Seminars will be supplemented by workshops on professional practice and by art handling sessions with a curator at the Ashmolean Museum.

Optional Courses

Applicants are asked to give a preliminary option course choice in their application, and will be asked to confirm this choice before commencing studies. Due to numbers, please be aware that it is not always possible to guarantee your 1st choice. Optional courses tend to change on a yearly basis, and are linked to the staff members teaching the options in that particular year.  Below, are the options that are taking place in the academic year 24/25 (admissions now closed).  Details of options available for 2025/26 are not yet available - these will be published later in the year.

Dissertation Supervision

The Faculty appoints supervisors on the basis of their assessment of their fit with your research interests and their spare teaching capacity. However, before you apply you should ensure that the Faculty has the ability to support your interests by having academic staff with matching expertise. Please check the research interests of Faculty staff by visiting the People page.

For details about the application process, please view the graduate admissions section of the History Faculty website and the History of Art page of the online prospectus.  For general admissions enquiries about the MSt or DPhil programme, please email

Optional Courses for 2024-25

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Instructor: Prof. Erin Pauwels,Terra Visiting Professor of American Art, 2024-25

Art has played an immense role in constructing an image of the American environment as a natural resource, scientific specimen, mythic Eden, arena of struggle, and/or fragile ecosystem. This course takes an ecocritical perspective on art in the Americas, offering a thematic survey of how land, animals, and material resources have inspired fine art, material and visual culture made in the United States, Mexico, Canada, and the Caribbean. We will investigate how artists have visualized diverse locales and shaped public perception of the North American environment, as well as exploring the unexpected ways in which ecological conditions impact the social, political, and economic contexts for making art. Beyond studying direct representations of landscape, climate, or weather, we also explore visual systems for understanding the natural world, such as mapping and survey photography as well as creative practice that makes nature its medium, such as land art and urban planning.

The course’s thematic case studies are organized chronologically, spanning pre-contact art and architecture by Native Americans through contemporary art activism in the context of global climate change. Within this framework, we unpack concepts that have been foundational to American culture, such as “wilderness” and “frontier,” and consider visual histories related to National Park systems; borderlands and migration; industrialization and resource extraction; race and urban ecologies; photography’s environmental impacts; extinction and ecological change. Along the way, we will cover a diverse range of artists and media from the paintings and writings of Thomas Cole and John James Audubon to more recent work by Robert Smithson, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Subhankar Banerjee, Maya Lin, Mark Dion, and other contemporary artists.

By the end of the course, students will learn to analyze works of visual art using “ecocritical” methods of art history—combining visual analysis with pertinent theoretical ideas, cultural knowledge, and environmental history—and will build knowledge of diverse American artists and modes of artmaking. They also will gain familiarity with contemporary ecocritical theory including texts by authors such as Timothy Morton, Donna Haraway, T.J. Demos, Robin Kimmerer, and Anna Tsing. By highlighting the interconnectedness of human beings with their environment in the Americas, as well as the power of art to re-imagine that relationship, the course provokes students to re-think accepted canons and practices through criteria of sustainability, environmental justice, and our ethical responsibility to non-human life as well as to one another.

Instructor: Professor JP Park

Since the 18th century the binary of “East and West” has functioned as a paradigmatic cultural comparison. In many people’s minds, these constructs represent two opposite poles of human experience. Right up to the present day, some Western writers argue the uniqueness (and thus superiority) of European art, while others have advocated learning from Asian ideals. Likewise, some scholars, such as Friedrich von Schlegel, believe that Chinese is the most primitive of languages, while other scholars believe that it is the most advanced. With increasing globalization and the rise of China as a world power, the need to stretch our imaginations beyond the constraints of traditional constructs has become a serious concern for fields ranging from business and law to anthropology and social work.

One of the major goals of this course is to offer you the tools to critically examine popular accounts of China, its art and cultures. Exposure to logical, historical, artistic, and literary modes of analysis will prepare students to recognize common misconceptions and formulate questions about Chinese art and culture in more rigorous and sophisticated ways. In addition, through a careful examination of scholarly research on both Eastern and Western arts, you can acquire a fuller appreciation for the diversity of cultural expression and shared human experience. In this process, you will gain an understanding of how the field is structured and how it has grown by tracing important debates of recent years. While providing a range of topics, this course hopes to produce future scholars who are well equipped with balanced and critical perspectives.

Instructor: Professor Alastair Wright

The course examines modernist art produced in France in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, interrogating how diverse artistic practices engaged with the politics of class, gender, and race. Topics will include the relationship between art and mass culture; modernism’s affiliations with both reactionary and revolutionary ideologies of the ‘popular’; the gendering of modern art in period accounts and in later art historical narratives; the connections between modernism and French colonialism; and the encounter with African art and myths of the ‘primitive’. To explore these issues, the writings of artists and their contemporaries will be examined alongside recent art-historical work and a range of theoretical texts on questions relevant to the materials of the course.