Autumn School Online

Making Sense of Key Concepts of Western Art

Monday 13 – Friday 17 September 2021

i Giovanna Garzoni, Still Life with Bowl of Citrons, late 1640s. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Programme Introduction

Autumn School Online offers the choice of three intensive short courses which familiarise students with fundamental aspects of the visual arts and of art history and its methodologies. Organised thematically, each course goes considerably beyond introductory surveys, and are intended to provide a solid basis for further studies in areas of Western art from the Renaissance to the twentieth century, and of the arts of the Islamic world. You can explore the full range of courses here.

We aim for a high level of scholarly expertise, an engaging delivery and a friendly atmosphere, and we welcome everyone over the age of 18, irrespective of previous experience. Small-group teaching facilitates discussion and ensures each student is given the lecturer’s attention. The fee for each online course is £195 and includes expert tuition from specialists in their field and extensive learning materials on our Virtual Learning Environment.


Course description

‘Truth to nature’ was the single most important principle governing Western visual arts from the Renaissance to the late eighteenth century and beyond. It was artists’ role to imitate nature faithfully, and their education placed great importance on mastering the skills of drawing from ‘life’ and of using images drawn from the real world that were stored in the mind or memory.

In practice, however, the relationship of the visual arts to nature was more complex and fraught than the categorical rule of ‘truth to nature’ might suggest. What aspects of nature should the artist focus on?  And what exactly was a truthful depiction? An unvarnished record of external appearances – or was there a higher, more ‘perfect’ truth that the artist should seek to capture?

‘New’ types of nature – unfamiliar places, ‘exotic’ animals, and non-European societies – raised further difficult issues, because even lifelike images of these phenomena were generally unverifiable by their first audiences. Closer to home, new technologies such as the microscope, telescope and camera obscura provided radically new ways of viewing nature, challenging existing artistic approaches to depicting the material world.

Our course will debate these and further questions which lie at the heart of our understanding of Western art, incorporating the close analysis of texts and objects by canonical figures such as Van Eyck, Vasari and Dürer with those of other important, less familiar artists and writers.


Lecturer’s biography

Dr Thomas Balfe is an art historian specialising in early modern (c.1550–c.1750) Flemish easel painting and graphic art. His research has focused on seventeenth-century animal, hunting and food still-life imagery. He received his MA (2009) and PhD (2014) from The Courtauld, where he worked as an Associate Lecturer from 2010. More recently he has taught art history for the University of Edinburgh. His co-edited book on the term ad vivum and its relation to images made from or after the life was published in 2019.

The course consists of:

  • Extensive course materials on our Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), including readings and digital resources, sent six weeks before your course;
  • Five pre-recorded lectures sent to you two weeks before your course (on a Monday) and re-watchable at your convenience;
  • Daily live Zoom seminars with your lecturer and fellow students during the teaching week (Monday 13 – Friday 17 September).

13 Sep - 17 Sep 2021

Daily Live Zoom seminars, 14:00 - c.15:30 [BST]


Course materials

Key dates
Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) w/c Monday 2 August 2021
(6 weeks before the teaching week)
Five pre-recorded lectures Monday 30 August
(2 weeks before the teaching week)
Live Zoom seminars Each weekday, Monday 13 - 17 September 2021
Deadline for access to the VLE and course materials (except the lecture recordings) Friday 12 November 2021
(8 weeks after the Friday your course ends

How does an online course work?

Each online course consists of:

a) 5 pre-recorded lectures,

Pre-recorded lectures are sent two weeks in advance of your course. In total you have a three-week viewing period to enjoy the lectures.

b)  Live Zoom seminars each day 13-17 September at 14:00 [London], lasting about 75-90 minutes each,

In these seminars you will discuss and further explore the themes outlined by your lecturer in five pre-recorded lectures. Live Zoom seminars are recorded and uploaded for you to re-cap the session or catch-up on ones you missed. Attendance is not compulsory. 

c) two discussion forums (student-to-lecturer and peer-to-peer), course handouts, scans of relevant chapters and journal articles reading scans and reading suggestions for further research. These can be found on our Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), for which you will receive a log-in.


We have designed a successful online teaching method that our students describe as straightforward and user-friendly; extra technical support is available to anyone who needs it – please email